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.