The Republican Hardliners Aren't Conservatives, They're Radicals

The legislators driving the direction of the GOP aren't interested in smart, limited government. They're aiming to eviscerate even the parts that work well.
Senator David Vitter, left, wants to strip congressional staffers of subsidies for health care. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

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 Senator 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, Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, 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 complain 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.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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