WASHINGTON -- Some progressive organizations have been making a push in recent days for incoming congressional Republicans to drop their government-sponsored health care on the grounds that keeping the plans would be hypocritical.
The incident started after incoming Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) complained loudly during freshmen orientation that his coverage wouldn't start immediately upon taking office. It took a new turn when Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Penn) and Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) both said they would, in fact, forgo the coverage. It escalated even further when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called out Harris for the "irony," and the municipal workers union AFSCME applied a similar charge to the whole GOP shortly thereafter.
"These Republicans want to repeal health reform, putting the insurance companies back in charge and putting affordable coverage out of reach of millions of Americans," said AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee. "If they enroll in the taxpayer-funded health care system provided to members of Congress, they deserve to be denounced as hypocrites."
There is an apparent double standard with respect to lawmakers trying to reduce health care for American workers while taking a subsidy for health care for themselves. And in a Public Policy Poll released on Tuesday, a full 53 percent of respondents (and 58 percent of Republicans) said that if a congressman is opposed to the president's health care reform law, he or she should decline to participate in government-sponsored health care.
But another cudgel sits there on the sidelines waiting to be used by trouble-making Democrats. If the incoming Republican Congress is so concerned about the use of taxpayer funds, it could start by foregoing taxpayer-funded health care. How much money that would save is impossible to pinpoint with great accuracy. But it's possible to make some reliable estimates.
According to the Los Angeles Times, "the plan most favored by federal workers is Blue Cross Blue Shield, which covers a family for about $1,030 a month." Of that total, "taxpayers kick in $700." So far there are 242 Republicans set to be seated in the incoming House of Representatives (that could only go higher) and 47 Republicans in the Senate. The taxpayer bill for insuring all those members over the course of a single year comes to just over $2.4 million ($700 X 12 months X 289 members).
Chump change? Yes, it is. That said, chump change seems to always at the heart of the most provocative political battles. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made a big issue over the fact that $1 million was being appropriated for a Woodstock museum in upstate New York.
UPDATE: Pete Sepp, the Executive Vice President of National Taxpayers Union -- one of the ultimate penny-pinching organizations in the D.C. area -- calls opting out of health care a "symbolic and not insignificant" gesture for congressional Republicans.
"If lawmakers are looking for ways to say that they feel solidarity with the American people this might be one way to do it," said Sepp. "And, again, if you are looking at dollar amounts that's equivalent or a little more of equivalent to [congressmembers] taking a pay cut of about five percent. And, again, we have heard a lot of pledges to reduce the overall budget of Congress by ten percent. So opting out of health care coverage is one place to start."