Budget Battle Fallback Plan? Make Congress Buy Obamacare Exchange Coverage—Without Any Employer Contribution



House Republicans may have time to make one final move before a government shutdown arrives at midnight tonight. The question is what the move will be. Right now, there's a lot of talk, and activist pressure, surrounding the Vitter amendment. That amendment does away with the so-called congressional "exemption" to Obamacare.

The exemption, as I've said before, isn't exactly an exemption. It's a form of special treatment. Congress is the only employer required to send its employees onto the exchanges. In a recent ruling, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) singled out Hill employees again, allowing legislators and their aides to use their existing employer contribution to help offset the cost of that insurance. The law treated Hill staffers and lawmakers differently from everyone else; the OPM ruling made that treatment considerably easier to tolerate.

The argument for attaching the Vitter amendment to a CR as a way to push back against the health law is fairly straightforward. For one thing, it's not clear that OPM has the authority to allow employer contribution to be used toward exchange purchased insurance. For another, taking away something described as a congressional exemption polls really well—better than 90 percent in some polls. So if the House were to send Democrats a funding bill with the Vitter amendment attached, and Senate Democrats refused to pas it, then Harry Reid and co. would be on the wrong side of those polls. Senate Democrats would be accused of shutting down the government to protect their own special treatment.

Supporters of the Vitter amendment also believe it could put pressure on Senate Democrats to delay some or perhaps even all of the law. That's because cutting off access to the existing employer contribution to health benefits would significantly raise the out of pocket cost of health insurance for affected legislators and staffers. Basically, in addition to being forced to drop their current federal benefits coverage for exchange coverage, they'd all be forced to take a pay cut. The more painful Obamacare is for legislators and their staffs, the thinking goes, the easier it will be to tear the law down.

Not everyone is sold on the idea. Partly because it's a bank shot against the health law; it leaves the major components intact, and hopes that Congress feels enough pain to respond. Partly because a response wouldn't necessarily be what Obamacare critics are hoping for. After all, the obvious comeback is that, if it's just a pay cut, then legislators could give their staffers (who are the most vulnerable here) raises to compensate for the lost incomes. Maybe Congress would be criticized for doing so, but it might not be as visible as a grand uniform salary raise for everyone on the Hill. A big part of the fear is "brain drain"—the early exodus of high-quality staffers as a result of benefits reductions. As those folks leave, Hill offices could simply begin hiring at higher salary rates that make up for what's been lost.

As a fallback attack on Obamacare, then, it leaves something to be desired. But with the expiration of current government funding rapidly approaching, and the notion of a full-year delay just as dead in the Senate now as it's always been, it may be the only option left aside from skipping straight to embracing a shutdown.