Trump urged to re­voke Oba­macare sub­sidy for Congress

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR. AND STEPHEN DI­NAN

Top con­ser­va­tives chal­lenged Pres­i­dent Trump on Mon­day to re­voke the special $12,000 Oba­macare sub­sidy mem­bers of Congress re­ceive each year cour­tesy of tax­pay­ers, say­ing the best way to force law­mak­ers back to the bar­gain­ing ta­ble is to force them to fully obey the strug­gling law.

Mr. Trump ap­pears to be on board, hav­ing tweeted twice in re­cent days that it was un­fair for Congress to give it­self ex­tra help to pay for in­surance pre­mi­ums when av­er­age Amer­i­cans are strug­gling.

“Why should Congress not be pay­ing what pub­lic pays,” the pres­i­dent won­dered on Twit­ter on Mon­day. Two days ear­lier, he de­cried the money as “bailouts” for mem­bers of Congress and in­sisted they “will end very soon!”

An­a­lysts said Mr. Trump can do more than tweet about it: He can take uni­lat­eral ac­tion, with­out hav­ing to wait for Congress, by order­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­voke the Obama-era pol­icy that ruled — de­spite what they called a clear pro­hi­bi­tion in law — that mem­bers of Congress could keep col­lect­ing money.

“It’s il­le­gal. It’s a fla­grant vi­o­la­tion of the law,” said Josh Black­man, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the South Texas Col­lege of Law.

Sev­eral con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans said they will work on Capi­tol Hill to change the law and force law­mak­ers to fully abide by the 2010 Af­ford­able Care Act.

They have tried in the past with no suc­cess. Both Democrats and Repub­li­cans have re­sisted ef­forts to strip out the pay­ments, which cover up to 75 percent of their health in­surance pre­mi­ums.

Some mem­bers have vol­un­tar­ily given up the pay­ments and are work­ing to force their col­leagues to do the same. Sen. Ron John­son, Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can, said he pays a check ev­ery three months back to the gov­ern­ment as re­im­burse­ment for the sub­sidy, which he said works out to more than $12,000 a year.

Given mem­bers’ $174,000 an­nual salary, the $12,000 is se­ri­ous, he said, but nowhere near the pain con­stituents mak­ing just $50,000 have to face.

“Un­til mem­bers of Congress are in that same po­si­tion, we’re not go­ing to fix that prob­lem,” he said. “This is un­for­tu­nately prob­a­bly the only way we’re go­ing to be able to do it.”

Con­ser­va­tives say that if law­mak­ers share the pain of av­er­age Amer­i­cans, then they will re­turn to the ne­go­ti­a­tions and work out a deal that fixes Oba­macare — ide­ally by con­trol­ling sky­rock­et­ing pre­mi­ums.

Mr. John­son, how­ever, ac­knowl­edged that his plan to can­cel the tax­payer sub­sidy was “prob­a­bly not wildly pop­u­lar” among fel­low sen­a­tors.

The fight over Congress’ role in Oba­macare dates back to 2009 and 2010, when the health care law was be­ing de­bated.

Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, Iowa Repub­li­can, man­aged to at­tach an amend­ment re­quir­ing mem­bers of Congress and their of­fice staffers to give up their poli­cies un­der the Fed­eral Em­ploy­ees Health Ben­e­fits pro­gram and en­roll in Oba­macare ex­changes.

Many le­gal an­a­lysts said that meant mem­bers and staffers would have to give up the em­ployer con­tri­bu­tion that cov­ered up to 75 percent of pre­mi­ums, just as most other ex­change cus­tomers are re­quired to do.

But the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment, un­der in­tense lob­by­ing from mem­bers of Congress who feared per­sonal fi­nan­cial hard­ship and los­ing staff, de­cided to con­tinue the em­ployer con­tri­bu­tion.

Democrats de­flected ques­tions about Mr. Trump’s threats, say­ing they were more wor­ried about the pres­i­dent sug­gest­ing he might with­hold pay­ments to in­sur­ers.

“I’ve heard noth­ing about col­leagues be­ing con­cerned about their own in­surance,” said Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal, Con­necti­cut Demo­crat.

Sen. Ron Wy­den, Ore­gon Demo­crat, said Mr. Trump needs to “deal with the pri­or­ity ques­tions, which is sta­bil­ity for the pri­vate mar­ket [and] hold­ing down the cost of pre­scrip­tion drugs.”

“I’ve got town meet­ings sched­uled — that’s what peo­ple want to talk about,” he said. “I’m go­ing to leave it at that.”

But Sen. Christo­pher Mur­phy, Con­necti­cut Demo­crat, said he was wor­ried about Mr. Trump’s ap­proach to ne­go­ti­at­ing.

“I think it’s re­ally ex­cep­tional. He’s mak­ing per­sonal threats against the body of Congress, our staffs and our con­stituents,” Mr. Mur­phy said.

The tax­payer sub­si­dies have been an is­sue for years. For­mer Sen. David Vit­ter, Louisiana Repub­li­can, re­peat­edly tried but failed to force the Se­nate to vote to re­peal the money.

At one point, he asked the Se­nate’s small-busi­ness com­mit­tee to au­tho­rize sub­poe­nas to the D.C. ex­change, hop­ing to pry loose doc­u­ments. The com­mit­tee, which Mr. Vit­ter chaired, re­fused to back him, with five Repub­li­cans sid­ing with Democrats in deny­ing his re­quest.

The D.C. ex­change says about 11,000 Capi­tol Hill per­son­nel are en­rolled through the city’s small-busi­ness ex­change.

Congress ar­gued that its mem­bers qual­i­fied be­cause each of­fice was a small busi­ness.

But Phil Ker­pen, a lead­ing con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist, said the House and Se­nate are reg­is­tered with the IRS as sin­gle em­ploy­ers cov­er­ing thou­sands of em­ploy­ees, so the ex­pla­na­tion that each of­fice is sep­a­rate is off base. He said con­gres­sional of­fi­cials used “false doc­u­ments” to duck the law.

He said the pub­lic would back the pres­i­dent if Mr. Trump chal­lenges Congress.

“The pres­i­dent ab­so­lutely has the power to di­rect OPM to change this rule,” Mr. Ker­pen said.

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