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Staff Benefits: Yes!

Congressional staffers are chronically underpaid in comparison to other federal workers and to private-sector employees. So if the House expects to keep a talented workforce, it should reverse a 2003 decision and expand health insurance benefits, as two Members have proposed.

As Roll Call reported yesterday, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) is attempting to revive a proposal, costing just $750,000 a year, to expand dental and vision coverage to House employees. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) proposes creating a system of voluntary medical savings accounts for staffers, which would cost taxpayers nothing.

The pay gap between Congressional staffers and other Washington workers has been documented again and again in studies by the Congressional Management Foundation. In its latest report, CMF found that in 2002 the average salary for D.C.-based House staffers was $51,068, a full 34 percent less than the $68,239 average for other federal workers. The average Senate salary in 2001 was $49,236, which was 32 percent behind the D.C. federal average.

According to the study of Senate aides, staffers with bachelor’s degrees averaged $41,938, compared with $62,818 for the U.S. labor force as a whole. Staffers with law and other professional degrees made $67,454, compared with $112,347 for those in the national labor force.

Hill staffers, like other federal employees, have good health insurance plans available to them. But last year the House Appropriations Committee rejected a proposal to expand dental and vision coverage on grounds that the funding had not been included in the Chief Administrative Officer’s fiscal 2004 budget. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), ranking Democrat on the committee, also objected on the grounds that the increase “should not happen at the same time we are chiseling on health benefits for other Americans.”

We don’t think that Congress’ decisions on policy issues or the health of the national economy should affect the adjustments to Congressional employee benefits or, for that matter, cost-of-living adjustments. And we certainly don’t think that staffers should have to suffer because of the decisions being made by their bosses. So, we hope that the 2005 legislative branch appropriation will include the health benefits proposed by Moran, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee. It does appear to have support from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).

In the meantime, medical savings accounts — which are already being tried in the executive branch and in the private sector — should be available to House staffers, too. Employees would be eligible to save up to $4,000 a year, tax-free, to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses, and $5,000 to cover child care. Unfortunately, establishment of the accounts won’t be possible until the House updates its payroll processing system. But it ought to be authorized anyway.

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