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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Edwards’ Empty Threat

He vows to take away congressional health insurance, but presidents can't do that.


John Edwards’ new ad says that when he’s in the Oval Office, he’ll tell Congress to  act within six months to make sure all Americans have health insurance or “I’m going to use my power as president to take your health care away from you.”

First he’s going to have to throw out the Constitution, though. No president has the power to strip lawmakers and Cabinet members of their health coverage. Health insurance is a benefit granted to federal employees (including members of Congress) by law, not by executive fiat, as we’ve said before.


Though Edwards is an attorney he could stand a little remedial reading on the separation of powers. His ad, which features him speaking at a campaign event, began running Nov. 13 in Iowa.

Presidential Dreaming

In this ad, Edwards says that he’s going to tell Congress to pass a universal health care measure within six months of his taking office. If it doesn’t happen, he says, “I’m going to use my power as president to take your health care away from you [Congress].”

John Edwards ’08: “Health Care”

Edwards: When I’m president, I’m going to say to members of Congress and members of my administration, including my Cabinet, “I’m glad that you have health care coverage and that your family has health care coverage. But if you don’t pass universal health care by July 2009 – six months – I’m going to use my power as president to take your health care away from you.”

Edwards: There’s no excuse for politicians in Washington having health care when you don’t have health care.

I’m John Edwards and I approve this message.

Well, that would take some doing. Presidents can’t just negate federal laws at will, and it’s under law that members of Congress, cabinet members, and other government employees get health insurance. They’re all covered through the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, which is a good menu of plans, but not the gold-plated health coverage that some may believe Congress gets. As former Rep. Martin Frost, recently explained, “During the 26 years I served in Congress, I always signed up for one of the Blue Cross plans that had both deductibles and co-pays.”

Edwards made the same threat during a Democratic debate in New Hampshire in September, and we jabbed him for it then. But he’s been repeating it on the stump, and indeed this ad appears to have been filmed at a campaign appearance.All Edwards could do as president is to push Congress to legislate away its own health-care coverage. And in fact, that’s as far as he goes when stating his position on his Web site. According to a campaign press release from earlier this fall:

Edwards press release: Edwards said on the first day of his administration he would submit legislation that ends health care coverage for the president, all members of Congress, and all senior political appointees in both branches of government on July 20th, 2009 – unless universal health care legislation that meets four specific, non-negotiable principles has been passed by that date.

That doesn’t sound like much of a threat, does it? Congress would have to pass a law in order to exempt itself, or the president, or the Cabinet, or any other federal employee, from health care coverage. Readers can judge for themselves how far such a bill would get.

It may make a tougher-sounding political ad for Edwards to threaten Congress outright “to take your health care away from you.” But it’s a threat that is misleading and empty. Edwards, who’s a lawyer, should know better.


Watch Edwards Ad: ‘Health Care’


Frost, Martin. “Myths about Congress Exposed,” FoxNews.com. 6 Nov 2007.

John Edwards ’08. “Edwards Defines What It Takes To Get To Universal Health Care In This Country,” press release. 17 Sep 2007.