It's a special day in Washington D.C. when a veteran Republican congressman violates the sacred 11th commandment famously put forward by Ronald Reagan: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
To be fair, violations of that commandment have become more frequent in the wake of last year's government shutdown, when a number of Republicans publicly chastised Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for orchestrating a stalemate that wrought billions of dollars of damage to the U.S. economy and a drop in public support for the GOP.
But the terms U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, used to describe Sen. Ron Johnson — a fellow Republican and a fellow Wisconsinite, no less — were far outside the bounds of what we have come to expect in public intra-party disputes.
The arch-conservative, who was first elected to the House in 1978, castigated Johnson for suing the federal government over the insurance deal members of Congress and their staffs are receiving through the Affordable Care Act. Johnson argues that because the law authorized Congressional employees to buy insurance through the exchanges, they should no longer continue to receive an employer contribution to help pay for their insurance.
Sensenbrenner, in so many words, told Johnson to stop being a nuisance.
“Senator Johnson’s lawsuit is an unfortunate political stunt,” he said in a statement. “I am committed to repealing Obamacare, but the employer contribution he’s attacking is nothing more than a standard benefit that most private and all federal employees receive — including the president.”
Sensenbrenner continued, invoking a logic that seems strangely similar to that advanced by Wisconsin public employee unions in recent years:
“Success in the suit will mean that Congress will lose some of its best staff and will be staffed primarily by recent college graduates who are still on their parents’ insurance,” he said.
And in case any Republicans had any doubts that losing experienced Congressional staff would be such a bad thing, Sensenbrenner makes clear the implications: “This will make it even more difficult to fight the President and his older, more experienced staff.”
The actual issue at hand is confusing and the product of political grandstanding by both parties during the debate over Obamacare four years ago.
The health insurance exchanges through which Congressional employees are now required to buy coverage were not intended for employees of large employers who already had good health care coverage, as most federal employees have. Requiring Congressional workers to buy insurance through the exchanges was instead a symbolic show of confidence by Congressional Democrats in the system they were creating.
But while Congressional staff will technically have to purchase their own insurance plans, the federal government will continue to pay for a large chunk of the cost.
For what it's worth, Johnson's friends at Right Wisconsin have already come to his defense. And a poll conducted on that website shows that 92 percent of readers agree with Johnson over Sensenbrenner on the issue, a result that is not terribly surprising — improving or maintaining benefits for federal employees has not exactly been a top priority on conservative talk radio.
Johnson also has the help of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a legal group funded largely by the Bradley Foundation that fights for conservative causes in court.
This is not the first time that Johnson's employee relations have been a source of controversy. Nearly two years ago an article by Roll Call, a Washington political magazine, alleged that he was planning to fire his entire his staff and was losing aides. He disputed the allegation and there has been no news of a mass firing since.