Last week's main attraction in the circus that is Washington, D.C., was the wrangle over raising the federal debt limit (again) to avoid a government shutdown at month's end. The issue splintered the GOP, with the tea party wing of congressional Republicans insisting that defunding the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) must be part of any agreement. House Speaker John Boehner, weary of what he saw as obstructionism by some in the House, let the tea party faction of the GOP have its way. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is sure to lose.
That was the attraction in the center ring. Running the sideshow was Louisiana's U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
Vitter is, to put it mildly, no fan of President Barack Obama, as he frequently reminds his constituents in emails and fundraising letters. Vitter particularly is not a fan of the Affordable Care Act, which he has referred to as "a train wreck." To that end, he held up passage of a non-controversial, bipartisan energy bill by demanding an up-or-down vote on an amendment he claims would force members of Congress to get their health care the same way as ordinary Americans. Vitter's amendment sounds fair on its face: Make Washington play by the same rules as the rest of us. If only it were that simple.
For starters, the Affordable Care Act does put Congress and congressional staffers into the same health care exchanges as other Americans. There's no congressional exception. What Vitter's plan would do is eliminate the employer's premium that the federal government pays to help cover the plan.
Like many other employers, the federal government has, for many years, helped subsidize private health insurance for its employees. When Obamacare kicks in, many private employers will shift their contributions to the new health care exchanges. For instance, last week Walgreens announced it would continue to pay much of its employees' health premiums under the new exchanges. So will many other employers for whom the plan is a wash: They'll contribute to employees' health care either through traditional insurance or a health care exchange. Thus, the whole premise of Vitter's ploy — that Congress is being treated better than the rest of us — is false.
Vitter's stunt — and it is a stunt — has angered many of his fellow conservatives. Only five others — all Republicans — have signed on to his amendment. Even far-right conservatives like U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia are balking. They note that it's not just the elected fat cats who will take a hit; it's lower-paid staffers. "We pay our staff such little money, and they work overtime," Chambliss told the website Politico last week. "And just like every other company in America that I know of, we help pay part of their health insurance premium(s). That's normal."
Vitter's antic also infuriated some powerful Democrats, who pulled a stunt of their own, leaking word that they might fire back by inserting language in health care legislation to bar federal employees from subsidized care if there was "probable cause" they had patronized prostitutes. It was clearly a shot at Vitter's six-year-old sex scandal, not a serious legislative proposal, but the punch landed squarely and Vitter howled. "[Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid is acting like an old-time Vegas Mafia thug, and a desperate one at that," Vitter said. He also accused Reid and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) of "personal attacks and threats that would affect each senator's personal finances," and demanded an ethics investigation of both.
All sides here need to stop playing for the cameras. Instead of posturing, senators on both sides of the aisle should explain exactly why they're against the Vitter plan in language as simple as Chambliss'. As for Vitter, he should note the work of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group of conservative House Republicans led by U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise of Jefferson. The RSC presented its own alternative to Obamacare last week, calling for tax breaks for individuals and families so they can purchase their own plans.
Whether you call it the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, our nation's new health care law has been argued and passed by Congress, signed into law by the president and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court (though new challenges to parts of the law may head back to the High Court). Vitter doesn't have to like Obamacare, but his posturing on the issue only adds to the circus-like atmosphere on Capitol Hill. And while he may hold himself out as a ringmaster, his latest stunt is nothing more than a sideshow.