President Donald Trump is threatening to ax money for lawmakers’ health insurance until they repeal Obamacare.
Senate Republicans aren’t trying to stop him.
“If that’s what he wants to do, he ought to just do it,” Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told POLITICO. But as “probably he’s learned over the last couple of weeks, threats don’t really go over particularly well. My advice would be to either do it or don’t do it.”
In a series of angry tweets, Trump has threatened to cut off the government’s share of payments for the Obamacare plans that cover lawmakers and their staffs. Those payments are similar to the share many employers pay for their employees’ benefits — including other federal workers.
But for members of Congress, the payments have been a pain because they have opened them up to accusations from conservatives that they’re getting special treatment — even a “bailout.”
It’s not the first time lawmakers have had to deal with such charges. During the debate over enacting Obamacare, members of Congress were forced out of the regular federal employees’ health plan and into Obamacare (although some joined a spouse’s plan as an alternative) so they could experience the effects of the law firsthand.
Trump has twice threatened in recent days to eliminate the “bailout” for lawmakers until they can successfully repeal Obamacare. The goal is to stop the government contribution until Republican lawmakers make good on the promise they — as well as the president — have made to repeal the health law. Technically he could do it, as the details of the policy are spelled out in a regulation.
“I just think the president is doing his best to express his frustration,” said Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).
Conservatives are cheering Trump on in his threat.
Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has criticized the payments and even gone to the Supreme Court to try to stop them, said eliminating them would expose lawmakers to the true cost of Obamacare health insurance and spur renewed action on repeal.
“Until members of Congress are in that same position [as the public], we’re not going to fix this problem,” said Johnson, who in 2014 sued the Obama administration over the policy.
Johnson says he writes the Treasury a quarterly check of about $3,000 to repay the government’s contribution to the coverage he buys on the D.C. insurance exchange.
To be sure, most lawmakers can afford to lose the employer contribution. The median net worth of a member of Congress is more than $1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But the lawmakers are worried about one affected group: their staffs. Congressional staff are also required under the health law to enroll in Obamacare plans. If Trump rewrites the regulation, it could also sweep up the employer contribution for Capitol Hill employees — a benefit most senators say should continue. Trump hasn’t distinguished between payments for the health plans of lawmakers and congressional staff.
“It would be harder to attract good help on Capitol Hill if” the payments end, said John Thune (R-S.D.).
Johnson wrote an amendment to the failed Obamacare repeal bill to eliminate the federal government’s contribution to lawmakers’ health plans. But he preserved the payments for staff.
“I want the people who work for me to have health insurance,” he said.
The amount the government pays varies depending on the cost of the health care plan members and staff select, but it equals about 72 percent of the total premium, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
The requirement that lawmakers enroll in Obamacare plans was originally drafted by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley but changed and inserted in the Affordable Care Act by Democrats in 2010. It quickly became one of the most controversial elements of the health law, at least inside the Beltway. The provision moved lawmakers and some staff out of the federal employees’ health plan without clarifying if the government as their employer could still pay part of the cost. The Obama administration decided that it could.
While the requirement was supposed to insulate lawmakers from charges they had better coverage than the public, conservative animosity toward the employer contribution has kept the issue alive.
Grassley said he wants the policy to remain as is.
“I got the amendment so I go to the [Affordable Care Act] exchange in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I’m doing exactly what my constituents said to me in the town hall meetings in 2009: ‘If its good enough for us, why isn’t it good enough for you?’"
Trump still can’t change the OPM regulation that set up the payments overnight.
“It would have to go through notice and comment rulemaking,” said Timothy Jost, a emeritus law professor at Washington and Lee University and a health law expert. “That would take a while — months.”