In their third iteration of shutdown poker, House Republicans eagerly seized on a new approach: to demand the removal of all subsidies for members of Congress and their staffs for health insurance. They framed this as treating Congress just like other Americans. It is utter nonsense. Most Americans have health insurance through their employers, and the lion’s share of their insurance premiums are paid—tax free—by their employers. Nothing in the Affordable Care Act will change this. Members of Congress and their staff have traditionally been treated the same as other federal employees; they purchase insurance on the federal employees health insurance marketplace, with 72 percent of their premiums covered.
A capricious amendment to the Affordable Care Act offered by Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, moved senators and their staffs off the federal employee health marketplace and onto the new Affordable Care Act exchanges, but it left ambiguous whether their subsidies would remain. (Grassley, remember, engaged in sham negotiations with his “friend” Max Baucus for many months in 2009 to find common ground and compromise on a health reform plan that was based on his own ardent support for the Republican plan to counter the Clinton health plan in 1993-94; he, however, pulled the rug out from under those negotiations and denounced in the strongest terms things he had strongly supported before Barack Obama became president.) Urged on by a bipartisan group of senators, including Tom Coburn, who feared that the removal of subsidies—a unique punishment—would result in a major brain drain in personal offices and committees, the administration said that the subsidies could remain, albeit in a very constrained form.
For the past month or more, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has blocked every significant action in the Senate, whether important for national security, homeland security, or the ability of Senate committees to function, in return for his demand to knock those subsidies out. Now House Republicans have jumped on this faux-populist bandwagon, knowing that anything that smacks of special privilege for Congress—even if falsely so—will be popular back home.
I have talked to enough Senate staffers and senators to know that the fear of a brain drain is real. Many of the most seasoned committee employees, who have enough seniority to retire but who stay in their jobs because they love public service, will bail out if their pay is suddenly cut by several thousand dollars due to the loss of the employer contribution for health insurance. So will plenty of staffers making $40,000 or $50,000, for whom the hit would be proportionately more severe. The Senate as an institution will suffer significantly from a loss of institutional memory and savvy that contributes to a functioning chamber and better laws being written—which ought to be a goal of liberals and conservatives alike.
But many senators who privately bitch about Vitter’s obstructionism and demagoguery have been unwilling to stand up and vote to stop him; Republicans in the Senate voted in lockstep to support the House plan.
All that is part of a larger problem that exists, one that has had me referring to the drivers in the GOP not as conservatives but as radicals. Rod Dreher, writing in The American Conservative in a piece called “Republicans Over the Cliff,” eloquently makes the same point. Conservatives believe in limited government—but also that the government we need to have—the services from national security to homeland security to interstate transportation—should be efficiently and competently provided, and that when government intervenes, it should do so with as much deference to the marketplace as possible. The current drivers of the GOP are much more hostile to government. Thus, the assault on all federal employees via cuts in pay and benefits; the all-out attack to delegitimize the Internal Revenue Service and its employees by Darrell Issa and his cronies, designed to make it harder for them to carry out their basic functions; the enthusiasm for the sequester; and the lack of concern about the societal impact of mindless cuts to basic research, food safety, and homeland security.
Some of this impulse is libertarian in nature, as evidenced by Sen. Rand Paul’s preferred budget, which makes Rep. Paul Ryan’s look New Dealish by comparison. Some of it reflects ignorance or willful suspension of disbelief—not understanding, for example, the impact of indiscriminate cuts on our health research infrastructure and on our nation’s seed corn in terms of our technological edge; or supporting the sequester but then decrying its cuts in medical research (without noting that these cuts would not occur without the sequester).
But a lot of it is an emotional, zealous reaction to America today—an ardent willingness to break crockery and demolish existing institutions to achieve the goal of eviscerating government as we know it, the good with the bad. As Dreher put it, “When I think of the Republican Party, I don’t think of principled conservative legislators who are men and women of vision strategy. I think of ideologues who are prepared to wreck things to get their way. They have confused prudence—the queen of virtues, and the cardinal virtue of conservative politics—with weakness.”
Not all congressional Republicans are in that camp. Many, especially in the Senate, fit a more traditional conservative mold. But few are willing to stand up to the zealots, and even fewer are willing to cast votes that depart from the pack. All of them dutifully recite the mantra that Obamacare is an abomination that ought to be eliminated, and none notes that it is basically the same plan as 1994’s Grassleycare/Hatchcare/Durenbergercare/Chafeecare, which was built around an individual mandate, private insurers on exchanges, and premium support for less fortunate Americans. More strikingly, no one notes that Ryan’s long-term plan for Medicare, built around regulated exchanges and premium support, is basically Obamacare for seniors. Every opportunity to reform and refine the Affordable Care Act through traditional institutional means, working with both parties, has been rejected by them.
Here is Dreher’s conclusion: “The Republicans cannot govern. These people aren’t conservatives. They are radicals. What on earth would Russell Kirk say if he were alive to see this?”
This article appears in the October 3, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Shutdown Poker.