January 6
Senator Ron Johnson (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senator Ron Johnson (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senator Ron Johnson  has announced he is going to file suit in Federal court to force Congress to cut the pay of its members and staff. I’ll explain why below, but that is quite literally his intention. This bizarre action is indicative of the state of Obamacare acceptance on the right.

Back in October, conservatives had convinced themselves that the law was going down in flames. But now that it looks to be basically functional (if far from perfect) conservatives are fumbling for any reason at hand to delegitimize the law. Going by past history, the answer will be to turn it into a conservative pet rock: like Benghazi and the IRS stories, an initially suspicious happening which turns out to be a non-scandal or an example of run-of-the-mill governing incompetence, but lives on forever as a Watergate level episode in the conservative fever swamps.

Here’s Senator Johnson:

In truth, many members of Congress feel entitled to an exemption from the harsh realities of the law they helped jam down Americans’ throats in 2010. Unlike millions of their countrymen who have lost coverage and must now purchase insurance through an exchange, members and their staffs will receive an employer contribution to help pay for their new plans.

It is clear that this special treatment, via a ruling by the president’s Office of Personnel Management, was deliberately excluded in the law…Even a cursory reading of the legislative history clearly shows the intent of Congress was to ensure that members and staff would no longer be eligible for their current coverage under the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan.

Here’s the real story. So Chuck Grassley pushed this amendment to the Affordable Care Act putting Members of Congress and their staff onto the Obamacare exchanges, thinking it would be a poison pill and he could make the Democrats look like hypocrites. However, since they believed in the law, Democrats happily agreed (indeed, this is actually a good idea). But now we’re in a strange place. Remember, the big parts of Obamacare are all about patching up the individual market. Employer-provided insurance was by no means abolished. So Congresscritters and their staff used to be getting this nice benefit, but now they’re pushed into the exchanges. If we make staffers pay for Obamacare, then that’s a big pay cut across the board, something Grassley never even considered — he was just being a schmuck.

So the Office of Personnel Management stepped in and said they didn’t interpret the Grassley amendment like that. Instead they would direct the money previously spent on the employer-side benefit to subsidize buying insurance on the exchanges. That way staffers are on the exchanges but they aren’t getting a pay cut for no reason. Fair enough, right? But conservatives convinced themselves that this was somehow a “special exemption” from Obamacare, David Vitter started pushing another amendment to forbid this subsidy, and now Johnson is doing the same thing through the courts.

So as we’ve seen, both Vitter’s and Johnson’s carping about an “exemption” is incoherent nonsense. But that’s clearly where conservative thinking on Obamacare is going. When Healthcare.gov was an embarrassing disaster, conservatives could believe the law was just going to implode, but now that belief is being badly shaken, and the cognitive dissonance seems to be powerfully unpleasant.

So now we’re witnessing what Paul Krugman calls “the Benghazi-fication” of Obamacare. Aside from Vitter and Johnson, they’re sowing doubt about the administration’s enrollment numbers and denouncing various administrative actions as illegal.

The good news, though, is that with a bit of luck, most of the rest of the country can soon forget about this convoluted nonsense and just get on with life.