The House Administration Committee unanimously adopted on Wednesday a change in the member handbook that could help Democrats seeking to promote HealthCare.gov.
The new rule allows lawmakers to promote and link to federal government websites besides their own. Democrats had encountered the hurdle while attempting to promote the federal health insurance exchange through taxpayer-funded advertisements, known as franking.
Members were trying to fill the gap in ad funding left by a 90 percent cut from the Trump administration. Democrats effectively circumvented the rule by linking HealthCare.gov on their own sites, but say the extra hurdle is a deterrent for constituents.
The change, which takes effect immediately, comes just two days before open enrollment ends on Friday. The newly expanded rule still excludes state exchanges, many of which have later deadlines than HealthCare.gov.
Open enrollment ads have been a contentious issue since the Trump administration slashed marketing amid other actions to undermine the law. Some Democrats accused the Franking Commission of purposely blocking or delaying HealthCare.gov requests. The commission, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, oversees mailings and advertisements that use taxpayer funds.
Commission Chairman Rodney Davis, R-Ill., took offense to that characterization Wednesday, saying he has a keen interest in updating outdated rules and increasing government transparency. He called the change “much-needed” and “long overdue” and made clear he was not intentionally blocking Democrats from promoting open enrollment.
Commission members met before Thanksgiving, he said, and Davis told Democrats the rule change would have to be adopted by the full committee. After that meeting, Davis said, Democrats still wrote him a formal letter on Nov. 16 complaining of delays and inconsistent approvals. One HealthCare.gov ad had been approved with the caveat that it did not represent a precedent for future requests, Davis said, and no exceptions were granted after that.
The Wednesday markup presented the first opportunity to institute the change, he added. He noted there are only 10 pending HealthCare.gov requests out of 193 Democratic offices.
“It’s sad that I think politics probably got injected into this debate and if we can inject politics into franked mail, that’s a sad place to be,” Davis said.
Franking is an obscure congressional procedure, but made national headlines in 1992 when powerful Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski was charged with mail fraud for using the funds for personal purposes. He served 17 months in prison.
The change was adopted roughly a month after the issue was first brought to the commission’s attention, Davis said.
“That’s pretty fast government if you think about how long things like that usually take around here,” he said.
A spokesman for the commission Democrats did not immediately respond to requests for comment.