Lame-duck Sen. David Vitter isn’t backing down from his fight against Congressional health care, and OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert is the latest to feel the brunt of the Louisiana Republican’s outrage over what he calls the “Washington’s Obamacare Exemption.”
Vitter has placed a hold on the nomination of Cobert to permanently lead the agency, writing in a letter released Thursday that she failed to respond to his questions. It’s not the first time Vitter has placed a hold on an OPM nominee because of Congressional health care, a crusade the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee chairman has been leading for years.
The answer to what exactly Vitter is opposing can’t be explained in one breath, but it can be found in just a few lines in the Affordable Care Act. The law states “the only health plans that the federal government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff … shall be the health plans that are created under this Act … or offered through an exchange established under this Act.”
But the law didn’t specify which exchange. So, OPM ended up ruling on the matter, deciding that members and staff who wanted health insurance through their employer were required to opt into D.C.’s small business exchange.
To Vitter, that’s the “Washington Obamacare Exemption.” The small business exchange allows employers to contribute to an employee’s health plan, and Vitter argues Congress is a large employer, and thus, members and staff should be required to shop in the individual marketplace, which would make them ineligible for employer contributions.
“As much as federal bureaucrats enjoy hiding behind layers of red tape, we have now reached the point where OPM can no longer avoid explaining how Congress was allowed to purchase health insurance as a small business – when it clearly is not,” Vitter said in a statement. “Ms. Cobert’s nomination will not move forward in any capacity until the American people have received answers as to why Washington’s Obamacare Exemption exists.”
In Vitter’s letter, he mentions that it recently came to his attention that the U.S. Senate Disbursing Office and the House’s Chief Administrative Office consider Congress a large employer for reporting health coverage. “I have written the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service requesting confirmation that the Congress is a large employer and whether or not there have been any violations of the Internal Revenue Code given communications and regulatory language by two federal government agencies that seem to be contradictory,” the letter said.
Vitter’s battle hasn’t been solely aimed at nominees. The Affordable Care Act defined congressional staff as “all full-time and part-time employees employed by the official office of a Member of Congress”—a matter Vitter took up with the Senate Republican conference in December 2014. He wanted to ensure all staff were on the exchanges instead of the federal program, including committee and leadership staff. However, the rule was nonbinding, and a National Journal survey last February and March found that most—but not all—were participating.