How the Republican Congress Can Win the Public’s Trust: GOP Members of Congress Should Deal Transparently With Their Health Insurance Subsidies

The Hill, November 23, 2014

By Doug Badger

Republicans have won the elections. They have not won the public’s trust. Earning that trust will require them to prove that they put the public interest ahead of their own. A good first step would be for GOP members of Congress to deal transparently with their health insurance subsidies.

Congressional employees have no legal entitlement to such subsidies. The Senate Finance Committee in 2009 adopted an amendment written by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) expelling congressional employees from the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program and requiring them to obtain coverage through the new healthcare exchanges. The Grassley language explicitly permitted those employees to continue to receive a federal contribution to their premiums. The provision authorizing the subsidies was removed from the final Senate version, which eventually became law. The excision of the subsidies was evidently inadvertent, an error that Grassley has attributed to aides to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev). Who is responsible for this error is irrelevant. The fact is that the law, as written, prohibits congressional employees from receiving the subsidies.

They are receiving them nevertheless because of a regulation promulgated by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). By providing federal subsidies to congressional employees, the regulation directly contravenes the law. It is the sort of regulatory malfeasance that Republican leaders ordinarily condemn. They have fallen strangely silent on this one.

Their silence is understandable. Many are looking out for their employees, most of whom are far less well-compensated than they. Their aides work long hours. Some have young children. Others are themselves barely more than children, recent college graduates who struggle to make rent. Those sympathies are well-placed. As a retired Senate and White House employee, I very much value my FEHB benefit. I would resent having it taken away.

But it was Congress, after all, that voted to take their own subsidies away. They, unlike the millions of Americans who lost the insurance they liked (including coverage they formerly received through the workplace), have no one to blame but themselves. They continue to receive the subsidies only due to an OPM regulation that could never withstand legal scrutiny. Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) lawsuit challenging the rule was dismissed for lack of standing, not lack of merit.

A skeptical public expects Congress to rail against executive excess on ObamaCare, immigration and the environment while gladly accepting health insurance subsidies that required similar regulatory acrobatics. They expect their elected representatives, with annual salaries of $174,000, to collect subsidies that average 72 percent of premium, while denying subsidies to individuals who earn as little as $47,000.

Republicans should not live down to these expectations. Instead they should recognize that low congressional approval ratings stem in part from the perception that members don’t practice what they preach. Congress should vote early next year to deny themselves these unlawful health insurance subsidies. If they want to protect their employees, the measure could include a Grassley-like provision that provides health insurance subsidies to congressional staff.

Such an exercise would not instantly mend the public’s negative perception of Congress, but it would lend the new majority a needed measure of credibility.

Badger was formerly deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs, where he helped formulate the George W. Bush administration’s policy and legislative strategy.