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House’s Health Benefits at Issue

The House made a political issue out of health insurance for Members and staff Wednesday, voting to ensure that money in the legislative branch appropriations bill not be used to add vision and dental benefits.

The dispute began when House Appropriation’s ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) got word that the Chief Administrative Officer intended to use part of his $188 million budget to expand the House’s health care coverage.

Then during floor consideration of the bill, he moved to change the rule, which was closed, to allow an amendment stipulating that no funds could be used for such a benefit. The House later agreed to that rule by a vote of 411-13.

All other facts about what transpired are in dispute.

The appropriators, both Democrats and Republicans, claim there was no specific reference in the CAO’s budget to a plan to extend benefits. Members on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the CAO and worked for a year and a half on the provision, retort that the language was in the CAO’s budget when it was submitted to the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch early this year.

In any case, Members voted Wednesday to ensure that the CAO’s $188 million budget could not be used to allow staffers to obtain vision and dental benefits.

Although much of the dispute focused on whether the provision was slipped in at the last minute, Obey’s argument also centered on the issue of medical coverage for Members and staff vis-a-vis the rest of the country.

“There may be good reasons to add such a benefit for public employees but it should happen in the open after public debate, and it should not happen at the same time we are chiseling on health benefits for other Americans,” Obey said.

Appropriations minority spokesman Dave Helfert said that one of Obey’s staffers found the provision late Tuesday night.

“Nobody will own up to it, and so his amendment was to strike it because it was slipped in with no hearings, no announcement, no discussion,” Helfert said.

But House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) headed to the floor before the vote and told the chamber that he was responsible and it was never a secret.

“Everyone has been talking about who inserted this provision. I did it,” he said, responding to critics who had said that whoever did it (presuming it was a staffer) should be fired.

Ney said the only people who could fire him were the more than 600,000 residents of Ohio’s 18th district.

“First of all, there is some type of confusion on Mr. Obey’s end on what they knew was there or not,” Ney said in an interview after the vote.

As to whether he could have slipped the provision in after the bill went to markup, Ney said flatly, “I am not on the Appropriations Committee.

“This was in [CAO chief Jay] Eagen’s proposal,” he added. “Mr. Obey’s staff for whatever reason didn’t see it or didn’t know. It was a misunderstanding.”

The benefit would have cost taxpayers $750,000, according to Ney. Some of the costs would have been picked up by the Members and staffers.

House Appropriations majority spokesman John Scofield responded that there was no mention of the CAO plan in any public document. He said that in the CAO’s three-to-four-volume budget there was only “vague and oblique” reference to it.

Ney said he voted for the rule, and thus to prevent the CAO from using his budget to fund the vision and dental benefit, because “we will tackle this issue another day.”

“I want health care for the entire country,” he said. “But in all due respect, I don’t think we have to slam, degrade [or] abuse the staff of the United States House who faced anthrax and planes” headed for the Capitol in order to make that point.

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