Stephanie Grace: Senate jousting seems beside the point

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

There’s no question that a threat by Senate Democrats to once again air U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s long-ago “serious sin” is, to put it politely, off point, coming as it does amid a debate over legislation on energy and health care.

On the other hand, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Vitter, given the way he’s behaving these days.

In a vintage Vitter maneuver, the senator is currently making a great big show of blocking a bipartisan energy efficiency bill — unless it includes his entirely unrelated amendment to force officials, including members of Congress and their staffs, to get health insurance through the exchanges being set up under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, rather than through a subsidized employer-based plan, as many Americans will continue to do even after the exchanges take effect.

Democrats got some juicy payback last week when they floated draft legislation that would make things personal for Vitter. According to the Washington, D.C., web publication Politico, Democratic leaders have drawn up a bill that would deny government-financed coverage to lawmakers if there’s “probable cause” to believe that they solicited prostitutes. Vitter, of course, was publicly linked to a D.C. call girl ring in 2007, but was never charged with a crime.

Vitter reacted in turn by calling for an ethics investigation into Majority Leader Harry Reid and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., accusing them of “bribery.” He also accused Reid, who represents Nevada, of “acting like an old-time Vegas thug.”

As entertaining as the back-and-forth is, none of it comes off as terribly professional or serious, let alone productive. Still, Vitter started it by threatening the health coverage of Congress’s own employees, and one obnoxious gimmick deserves another.

Of course, Vitter’s not the only senator who’s trying to attach an amendment to the bill.

Mary Landrieu has one as well, urging the president to support construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. It also is rooted in political positioning, but at least it’s about energy policy.

There are others too, some focused on more-or-less energy related issues, others on Obamacare and one, by Boxer, calling for members of Congress to lose pay if they fail to raise the debt limit. (She, unlike Vitter, didn’t bring their employees into it.) These are the games senators play.

Still, Vitter’s maneuver stands out as singularly unserious. It purports to solve none of the sprawling Affordable Care Act’s actual problems, and it advances no policy debate. It uses real people’s benefits as collateral simply so he can make a point that he’s made over and over, that he doesn’t like Obamacare (yes, senator, we get it). Frankly, it’s mean.

Insurance available on the exchanges probably wouldn’t match federal employee benefits, which are considered the gold standard. And since those affected wouldn’t be eligible for an employer contribution, the shift would amount to an effective pay cut.

But that same insurance will represent real progress for those who the exchanges are designed to help, the people who can’t get insurance through an employer and often can’t access affordable coverage — or if they have pre-existing conditions, even qualify for it. Once the exchanges go on line, everyone will be able to buy in, and many individuals will qualify for government subsidies.

And just to recap, because people somehow keep forgetting: These exchanges are part of a market-based approach designed and once embraced by conservatives to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own medical costs rather than make everyone else pick up the tab. They are being created under a law proposed by a president who has since been re-elected, passed by Congress, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet Vitter’s exploits are holding up a rare bill that should actually pass with support from both parties on its merits. It’s been in the works for several years, has sponsors from both parties, and calls for voluntary energy efficiency measures rather than the dreaded federal mandates. New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who authored the bill with Ohio Republican Rob Portman, reportedly offered to help Vitter secure a separate vote on his measure, if only he’d stop holding her bill hostage. He declined, saying he’d only accept a guaranteed vote before the exchanges debut Oct. 1, according to a National Journal article pointedly headlined: “Why Congress sometimes can’t even pass moderate, bipartisan bills.”

There was a time when senators did just that, when members of different parties worked so well together that the institution was considered a cozy club. This whole episode, and others like it, reflect the sad new reality that government more often resembles a permanent political campaign, a never-ending war.

Vitter has actively participated in making it so. And once you head down that path, you never know where it might lead.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.