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Run Silent, Run Scared

Most agree Congress should not be exempt from Obamacare.

8:20 AM, Sep 10, 2013 • By HEATHER R. HIGGINS and WILLIAM W. PASCOE III
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Most members of Congress think they just received a tremendous personal gift on Obamacare, courtesy of President Obama, and paid for by taxpayers. But according to a new poll, this issue cuts across all demographics with unrivaled unanimity: if they accept the gift, they put themselves at risk of losing reelection. What’s a congressman or senator to do? Hopefully they’ll use the upcoming continuing resolution (CR) to turn this issue to advantage.

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Let’s back up a few weeks. Heading into the August recess, after facing tremendous pressure from Nancy Pelosi and others, President Obama directed the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to solve an intractable problem: Under the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, members of Congress and their staff are no longer allowed to receive their generous health benefits from the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), but are required to get their healthcare from the newly created exchanges like millions of other Americans.

Why did that cause consternation in Congress? First, the exchanges don’t offer the same plan options and coverage. Second – and hitting home in the pocket books of congressional spouses and staff – the rules under Obamacare preclude employers kicking in for the cost of that insurance. So members of Congress and staff were looking at anywhere from a $5,000 to $11,000 net pay cut if they had to step in and pay for their own or family’s insurance.

The OPM ruling that the government could subsidize congressional staff’s insurance is a benefit that no other American who will be on the exchanges will receive. Worse still, this exemption was created without a congressional vote. A poll conducted for Independent Women’s Voice by GEB International reveals why Congress and the president wanted this change made quietly. The survey sampled 500 likely voters (39 percent Democrats, 31 percent Republicans) nationwide (margin of error of +/- 4.38 percent).

It confirmed that Obamacare remains a largely divisive issue, with 51 percent of voters disapproving of the president’s signature piece of domestic legislation and 54 percent wanting to see it delayed or defunded (just 39 percent wanted it implemented as is).This is driven purely by ideology and party identity: Liberals and Democrats want the Obamacare implemented, while a plurality of conservatives and Republicans want Obamacare defunded, and the rest want to see it delayed in some way.

Ironically, it took Congress to unite voters around Obamacare – specifically, to unite voters against the congressional exemption. Voters strongly reject the idea that there is one standard for the ruling class and another for the rest of us.

Overwhelmingly, 94 percent of voters consider it fair that the Congress be required to abide by the same law they passed for the country. Conversely, 92 percent of voters believe it is unfair that the Congress should be exempt from buying their insurance in the health exchanges. This attitude transcends ideology, party and past voting behavior, and lends considerable weight to the argument that if Obamacare is good enough for the American people, it should be good enough for Congress.

It is important to highlight that voter disapproval of the exemption has no relationship to one’s view on Obamacare. Whether one approves or disapproves of Obamacare, most agree that Congress should not be exempt from this law.

Some Republicans have argued that since they didn’t vote for the law, they should be exempt from it. But 82 percent of voters do not agree with that justification.

Nor is there much sympathy for the idea that the exemption is necessary to prevent many Capitol Hill public servants from leaving for private sector jobs. Again, 82 percent of voters disagree that the exemption is needed.

When voters learned that the Republican and Democratic senatorial committees had reportedly reached a truce to not discuss this issue in the upcoming campaign cycle, 85 percent of voters disapproved, 79 percent strongly so.

What do voters believe should be done? Seventy-five percent want Congress to reverse the order and mandate that the White House, members of Congress, and the rest of the Federal Government get their insurance through the exchanges without special subsidies, just like the rest of the country – in other words, an “Equal Treatment Act.” And this transcends ideology: liberals (69 percent), moderates (72 percent), and conservatives (83 percent) all preferred this immediate action. Another 14 percent simply wanted the order reversed, leaving only low single digits content with keeping the order as is, or allowing individual members of Congress to opt their offices out of the subsidy.

Sixty-nine percent of voters said they would replace, rather than re-elect their representative if they voted for Obamacare (e.g. most Democrats) and accepted the exemption.

The intensity in the vote to replace is predominately on the right and among those who already disapprove of Obamacare – 83 percent of conservatives, 78 percent of Republicans, and 83 percent of those who disapprove of Obamacare would vote to replace. Nonetheless, 55 percent of liberals, 54 percent of Democrats, and 52 percent of those who approve of Obamacare also prefer to replace a Democrat who took this special subsidy.

When we asked whether a voter would vote against his member of Congress or senator if they voted against Obamacare (e.g., a Republican) but accepted the exemption, the overall number remains statistically the same (70 percent), regardless of party ID or attitude toward Obamacare.

Members facing reelection next year should be on notice. Congress may have called a truce on this issue, but voters haven’t. When educated about the exemption, voters strongly disapprove and are ready to punish those who are complicit with it. This is not about Obamacare or ideology: It is about fundamental fairness, a value that transcends ideology.

What should members of Congress do? First, members need to remember that they are there to serve, and if they want Obamacare delayed for themselves, they need to delay it for the rest of America too.

Step one, therefore, is to offer, in the upcoming short term continuing resolution (CR), a rejection of the OPM ruling, which will be almost impossible for Democrats to vote against. (If they do vote against it, Republicans will have differentiated themselves, enhanced their brand, and created an extraordinary issue for 2014.)

If Democrats yield to public pressure and agree to undo Congress’s special exemption in the upcoming CR, then Republicans will have exceptional leverage they do not currently possess to achieve delay on Obamacare – because that will be the only way Democratic members and staff can keep their existing health insurance plans. And that’s an incentive that will make getting out of town for Christmas – the usual point of leverage for hard to pass legislation -- seem like chump change.

In short, this is an issue with almost unprecedented intensity. Republicans have the choice of leading the parade or getting run over by it. To bypass such a win/win will be viewed by their constituents as political malpractice. And that’s not a position any politician should want to put himself or herself in.

Heather Higgins is president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice. William W. Pascoe III consults on political strategy with IWV.

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