As the Trump administration moves closer to instructing the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to eliminate the Obama-era rule that bailed Congress out of paying its own Obamacare premiums, the pushback from congressional leadership has been ferocious. But if GOP leaders on the Hill think through the implications, they should see that it is actually in their strategic interests to welcome a move by President Trump to force them and their staff to live with the Obamacare law – until it can be changed.
Why? Because the hit to members and their staff of around $12,000 per family would create enormous pressure to pass at least a so-called “staff fix” restoring employer contributions for staff. But the American people would demand any such fix be paired with relief from Obamacare for millions of other Americans – jumpstarting the overall repeal and replace effort and infusing personal urgency for everyone involved.
Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would also be able, by welcoming the move by President Trump, to establish themselves as different, more honest leaders who are making a sharp break from the backroom deal cut by their predecessors with Barack Obama.
Quite simply, that deal was dirty.
The Obamacare law terminated the employer coverage members of Congress previously had, required them to sign up on the Obamacare exchanges, and provided no employer contribution. It would have put them in the exact same situation as the people most severely financially squeezed by Obamacare: people who don’t have employer coverage and make too much money to qualify for subsidies. But it never happened.
After a too-little-noticed meeting with Senate Democrats in March 2013, Obama personally bailed Congress out of paying their own Obamacare premiums, and he delivered via an OPM rule purporting that Congress is a small business; the House and Senate then each filed a false document claiming to have less than 50 employees – before signing up 12,000 people.
This fraud of instructing Congress to masquerade as a small business was the key to the bailout scheme, because Obamacare effectively prohibits employer contributions for non-group coverage.
By reversing the OPM rule, President Trump could end an act of interbranch collusion whose sole purpose was to allow Congress to avoid the pain of a law they passed without the political consequences of actually changing that law.
And Congress would be back in the position they faced in 2013 before the dirty deal was done, with a bipartisan staff revolt and potential exodus of some key senior staffers under family financial pressure – but this time the only solution would be new legislation.
President Trump should make clear that he will only sign a “staff fix” as part of a broader package of health care reform that provides relief to all Americans – not tucked into some other unrelated bill.
The most equitable (and perhaps the only politically defensible!) fix would be for Congress to authorize employer contributions towards individual coverage not just for members of Congress and their staff, but for all employers. That reform is already included in the Graham-Cassidy-Heller bill that could serve as a template for a revived Senate health care bill that could provide meaningful relief from Obamacare’s mandates and regulations for all Americans.
The bottom line is that health reform has stalled and the best option the president has to jumpstart it is to rescind the OPM rule. If GOP leaders in Congress want to deliver on their promise to provide relief from Obamacare, they should welcome such a game-changer.
Phil Kerpen is head of American Commitment and a leading free-market policy analyst and advocate in Washington.