David Vitter’s political quest to embarrass Congress on health care


Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) walks to the Senate at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 12. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

This week, once again, Sen. David Vitter did not get his way.

On Wednesday, in a speech on a near-empty Senate floor, Vitter (R-La.) returned to a lonely quest that has obsessed him since September. He is unhappy — very unhappy — with the health insurance plans available to Congress’s staff.

The problem, Vitter says, is that those plans are too good.

Under the president’s health-care law, Congress and much of its staff are supposed to lose their old health plans and instead buy coverage on the “exchanges” set up for individual Americans. But Vitter says that they are slated to get improper help, including money from the federal government, and that special loopholes allow some to keep their old coverage.

Vitter wants that to stop.

The law has more headaches than just HealthCare.gov. "In Play" asks some of The Washington Post's top political reporters to explain. (The Washington Post)

And so he has embarked on an improbable mission: to persuade other legislators to take valued benefits away from the very staffers who write their speeches, guide their votes, answer their mail and remind them of the birthdays of spouses and the names of Rotary Club presidents back home.

This plan has not been working.

On Wednesday, it did not work again.

“I object,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), thereby shooting down Vitter’s latest effort — to require members to disclose whether staffers are being shielded from the health-care law — by adding an amendment to an unrelated bill that would increase oversight of compounding pharmacies. Vitter had held up the popular bill’s passage in hopes of getting a vote.

“That’s unfortunate,” Vitter said.

Vitter — a conservative in his second Senate term — has introduced at least three bills and an amendment on this topic. Since September, he has given at least 12 speeches about it on the Senate floor.

For Vitter, this is a chance to embarrass the rest of Washington, and especially Democrats, in the eyes of conservatives around the country. His central argument is that within Congress’s benefits, there are provisions so gob-smacking that — if somebody just explained it to the American public — they would see it as proof of Washington’s outrageous arrogance.

Congress “wants to impose these new rules on the rest of America; it doesn’t want to live by them itself,” Vitter said in a Senate floor speech last month. “It is sort of like when a person walks into a restaurant and hears that the chef never, ever eats at that restaurant, never, ever has a meal out of that kitchen. It makes a person wonder.”

There are problems here. One is a problem inside the Capitol. So far, legislators have not been willing to alienate the staffers they see every day in order to please conservative voters that they don’t.

The other problem hampers Vitter’s case outside the Capitol. That problem is that the health insurance provisions he’s basing his argument on are not easy to explain.

Start here: In President Obama’s health-care law, there is a provision saying that members of Congress and staffers in the legislators’ “official offices” must obtain coverage on the new exchanges. That starts Jan. 1. That’s a change from the situation now, in which legislators and staffers can choose among plans provided by the federal government, which are also offered to a wide range of other federal employees.

But for those forced to find a new policy on the exchanges, one thing won’t change. The federal government will still pay part of the cost — just as it does for other federal employees, and just as many other large employers do for their employees.

This is what Vitter sought to get rid of first. He wanted to eliminate that employer contribution, calling it a special “exemption” not available to regular people (a view that ignores the exceptional circumstances under which Congress forced its employees onto the exchanges in the first place).

If that Vitter proposal becomes law, members of Congress and their staffs would have to pay the full premiums for their new policies. That could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars in new costs.

But it hasn’t.

And it probably won’t. Republicans in the House briefly seized on Vitter’s idea in the chaotic last days of the government shutdown. But the House vote never came. The broader proposal that the Vitter idea was attached to was scuttled by Republican infighting.

After that near miss, Vitter vowed to keep fighting. His efforts have been supported by some outside conservative groups: Citizens United, in particular, has launched a $100,000 campaign with Vitter, using the Web site www.livebyyourlaws.com.

But other groups — even those who agree with Vitter’s logic — say their focus is on broader-scale efforts to repeal the whole law.

“We support that 100 percent. It’s just, we want to be honest with people about what that means,” said Matt Hoskins of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has challenged incumbent Republicans from the right. “First of all, it doesn’t provide relief to millions of Americans. Second of all, . . . members of Congress will always find a way to treat themselves better than everyone else.”

On Wednesday, Vitter was back on the Senate floor with his less ambitious target. He was no longer asking legislators to take back staffers’ monetary benefits. Instead, he wanted legislators to own up, publicly, to using a loophole that would allow some staffers to keep their old coverage.

The problem was that Vitter’s new complaint required even more explanation than his last one.

It was about the legal meaning of the words “official office.”

Those words matter because the health-care law says that only staffers in a legislator’s “official office” are required to buy coverage on the exchanges. But the law doesn’t say what the two words mean, exactly. So the Obama administration has allowed legislators to decide for themselves.

For example, a legislator might declare that staffers working in her district office are “official office” personnel. They go on the exchanges. But then she might decree that staffers who work for her at a congressional committee are not “official office” personnel. So those staffers can keep their current coverage.

“That’s ridiculous. They’re clearly ‘official’ staff. They’re not campaign staff. They’re not off Capitol Hill, outside of government,” Vitter said Wednesday. “I entered a bill that says these decisions — by each individual member of the Senate and the House — need to be made public.”

Vitter called for a vote on a proposal that would require legislators to declare how they’d divided their staff between these categories. Vitter’s staff is all “official,” which means anyone who has a plan now will have to give it up, an aide said.

That didn’t work. Harkin, who was leading the debate on the bill dealing with pharmacy regulation, officially rejected Vitter’s ideas.

“It’s just an outrageous imposition of one senator’s views and considerations on the entire United States Senate,” Harkin said.

Vitter yielded the floor, saying he would look for another chance to hold a vote on this issue.

“My goal is a clear, up-or-down vote on this pure disclosure proposal,” he said before he left. “And I am open for suggestions for that to happen in any reasonable time frame, meaning this calendar year.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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