Governor candidates talk tax incentives, budget crisis at forum _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- U.S. Sen. David Vitter

But this time, his target is not Democratic President Barack Obama, but Congress itself.

Vitter this week sent a letter to the “Obamacare” small-business exchange in the District of Columbia that provides the health-insurance coverage for Congress and also to the clerks of the Senate and the House of Representatives. He signed it as chairman of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, a job he took in January by virtue of the Republicans capturing a majority of the Senate in the current Congress, as a result of election victories in 2014.

In the letter, Vitter asked to meet with exchange officials to discuss how they went about approving an application from Congress as a small business eligible to participate in the exchange. In Vitter’s words, “Allowing Congress to determine itself as a ‘small business’ should not have passed the common-sense test.”

He also wants to see the complete versions of the documents submitted by the clerks in support of the application.

An open-records request by Judicial Watch, a conservative ethics watchdog organization, brought forth application documents with some names and other information blacked out. Those documents included fake names, phony numbers and other false information, Vitter said — such as the representation that Congress is a state or local government, or that it employs 45 people, and thus qualifies as a small business, instead of the actual total of 16,000 or so.

The documents prove that someone within Congress falsified information, Vitter wrote. “We need to know who, immediately, so we can fix this injustice and eliminate the unfair practice,” he said.

And, he said, “As you are well aware, if any business in the United States were to knowingly provide false information when applying for a state or federal program, it would likely face severe penalties.” The exchange, he said, should hold Congress to the same standard as any other D.C. business.

The issue has its roots in 2010, when the health law was working its way through Congress. Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, won approval of an amendment that required the federal government to stop offering members of Congress and their staffs the government-wide Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan — a typical workplace plan, with the employer paying about 75 percent of health coverage premiums and the employee paying the rest — but instead to “make available” only plans marketed through ACA insurance exchanges.

That left the members and their staffs in a sort of limbo: Unlike every other employer in the country, theirs could not offer them a standard workplace health plan and pick up most of the tab. The Obama administration then stepped in to promulgate a rule that said the government would continue to pay its share of the employees’ coverage provided they purchased it through the District of Columbia’s small-business exchange under the health law .

But there’s another wrinkle: The Grassley amendment allows members of Congress to designate some or all of their staffers exempt from the amendment’s scope so they can remain in the employee health benefits plan, pretty much at the members’ discretion.

Vitter wants to end the special treatment for Congress under Obamacare. Under his proposal, everyone from House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, to the lowliest Senate office receptionist — as well as the president, vice president, Cabinet officers and other White House appointees — would be required to buy health insurance through an ACA exchange, and could not received the employer contribution available to millions of workers across America through employer-provided plans.

But the Republican-controlled House rejected a similar proposal last year, and several of Vitter’s fellow Republican senators don’t like the idea, either.