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Congressmen Refusing Health Benefits: Principled Statement, or Grandstanding?

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During the long fight over passage of the Affordable Health Care for America Act, known somewhat misleadingly as “Obamacare,” proponents of the Democratic-sponsored reform often accused Republican lawmakers who opposed it of a kind of hypocrisy. How, they asked, can you oppose a plan that would extend health coverage to more Americans, while accepting high-end health benefits yourself through your government job—benefits that bear a strong resemblance to the system set up by the reform plan you hate so much?

Members of Congress get lots of perks that are unavailable to the general public. One is priority care at military hospitals, a benefit that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, for one, took advantage of when he needed bypass surgery in 2003. But the real poster boy for this disconnect was Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who vocally opposed the health care bill during his campaign, but when elected complained about the four-week wait before his new Congressional health care plan kicked in.

Some Republican congressmen are making an effort to align their benefits with their principles by declining government health care. “I am not taking the health care portion of the benefits,” freshman congressman Frank Giunta (R-NH) told Think Progress last month. He is one of a number of freshmen who are making this choice. “I didn’t come here to get health insurance,” said Florida Republican Daniel Webster. “I came here to make a difference…as long as [the health coverage] is subsidized I decided I’m not going to participate.”

Of course, morality does not require us to deny ourselves everything that is not available to everyone else. For example, many straight people believe gays should have equal marriage rights, but most of these straight people—among them, yours truly—still get married. I sensed the injustice of the fact that my gay friends still can’t get married. (They can’t in the state where I live, anyway, though that may soon change.) It certainly made me think. But it didn’t stop me from doing it myself.

To get more extreme: All over the world, people living in poverty lack proper sanitation and enough food. According to our own William Lambers, hunger affects almost a billion people. Living a privileged life in America, I never have to go hungry. Do I deny myself food in solidarity with hungry victims of drought, war, natural disasters, and corrupt government? No. Do I deny myself a vacation because some people, in my own city, can’t afford one? No.

When I start doing those things, I can start asking politicians to decline their health benefits and go fend for themselves on the open market.

But I wouldn’t. Refusing health benefits may score some political points with the Republican base, but unless these congressmen are going to suffer real hardship by it, it’s just grandstanding, and worse: it’s an insult to the millions of working Americans who couldn’t afford to make such a “statement” if they wanted to.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Clavos

    Well, they’re republicans — they don’t do anything right.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    If you take politics out of it, however, he does raise an interesting moral question.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    The point is, in Rep. Webster’s words, that politicians can “make a difference”.

    Jon Sobel can’t. If he were to defer taking vacations until everyone in New York could afford them, he’d never go anywhere. So his decision is absolutely legitimate.

    On the other hand, for Republican legislators to brag that they’re going to do away with Obamacare while taking advantage of a state-funded healthcare plan themselves is hypocritical.

    So I have to give credit to those who are declining the coverage. They’re putting their money where their mouths are.

    We’ll see if they play a similar tune when it comes to the next congressional salary increase vote…

  • anthony sanders

    How affordable is the obomacare plan?

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    If only that question could be answered easily, Anthony. The compromises that were forced on the Democrats who created the plan turned it into a monstrously complex bill. It was the best (I suppose) that could be done given the obstacles. And that’s leaving aside the question of whether the mandate is constitutional…which we won’t know until it gets to the Supremes.

    Dr. D, you can give them credit if you choose, but I’ll do so, as I suggested in my opinion piece, only if they’re letting themselves in for the same hardships that fall on the average working person who loses or can’t get health insurance for his/her family.

  • http://theugliestamerican.blogspot.com Andy Marsh

    No, excepting a healthcare plan from your employer is NOT hypocritical. And whether you like it or not, congress is employed by the govt…

    Here’s the deal…congress gets healthcare from their employer. the military gets healthcare from their employer. Now, what democrats want is for their employer, the US govt., to provide healthcare for everybody and that’s bullshit!

    Try earning something you get from the govt. instead of holding your hands out! You know, live by one of your other heroes famous lines, “Ask not what your country can do for you…blah blah blah…

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Clearly you’ve missed my point, which is that most people who get health care from their employer don’t have the luxury of turning it down. Buying individual coverage on the open market is prohibitively expensive for most Americans. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

  • Chris

    So Jon, you are berating the reps that have decided to turn down coverage because they can afford it anyway? What are you saying about the reps that don’t turn down the benefit? Do you berate them as well? Sounds pretty much like a no win situation unless they were to give all of their wealth away, and THEN turn down the coverage.

    Oh, and yes we would be in this mess no matter what. A giant chunk of the American population will refuse to pay for health care no matter what it cost. At the same time enjoying Dish Network on their plasma tv’s, and talking with their baby mommas on their iPhones, or picking them up in their late model autos.