Skip to content

Hill Staff Health Care: Will Voters Care About This Sideshow?

For better or worse, but at least with some finality, congressional staffers’ three-year run as pawns in the Obamacare debate is ending.

Now these aides will have to wait a year to learn whether the source of their medical plans matters a whit to the voters.

Given the abysmal approval ratings that members of Congress are confronting, and the welter of public apprehension about the health law that’s making Republicans giddy and Democrats anxious, it’s tough to imagine any close race in 2014 being influenced if the incumbent’s staff is still covered under the federal health system, not one of the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges.

But since the suggestion of hypocrisy is the mother of so many 30-second attack ads, it’s not unreasonable to imagine some challengers at least trying to make a big deal out of lawmakers who have decided their employees won’t have to enter the new marketplaces into which they have recently steered millions of constituents. Fairly or not, these critics will describe this as fresh evidence of Congress going out of its way to exempt itself from the social experiments it imposes on the rest of the nation.

Whether this line of attack proves too obscure, confusing or fact-challenged to gain any traction during the midterm campaign will be fascinating to watch. That’s especially so for those on Capitol Hill who spent much of the past two weeks trying to comprehend the facts and end the confusion surrounding this second insiders’ Obamacare sideshow.

The first of those sideshows — which played an important supporting role in last month’s shutdown maneuvering — was about whether lawmakers or their aides should continue to receive health insurance premium support from the government. Critics derided this “new taxpayer subsidy” as improper under the 2010 law, even though it’s been a benefit of Hill employment for decades and is akin to what half the country receives in the form of employer-sponsored health insurance.

The conservative GOP effort led by Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana came to naught and at least through next year, monthly premium payments of about $400 for an individual plan and about $900 for a family plan will continue.

The newer kerfuffle is over where that coverage will come from.

The law is clear that senators and House members must directly experience one of its central provisions: They may no longer participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits program after the end of the year. And when open enrollment begins after Veterans Day, they’ll have to purchase coverage in the D.C. exchange.

The same section of the law managed to create enormous ambiguity for the 15,000 people who work for those members. Added by voice vote during the Senate debate in December 2009, the amendment by Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa was, according to Hill legend, scrawled on a scrap of paper. And, the lawyers lament, it shows.

The law says those “employed by the official office of a member” must buy coverage on the exchanges. But that term has no apparent legal precedent and was therefore open to broad interpretation, which continued right up until this week’s hastily decreed deadline for every member to tell the payroll offices which of their staffers is doing what.

In the end, administrative officials in both the House and Senate agreed the quirky phrase best described the 10,000 workers in personal offices, in D.C. and back home. So the default personnel policy is that those employees are compelled to go shopping on the exchanges, while committee staff and leadership aides get to keep their Federal Employees Health Benefits plans.

But the lingering notion of Congress as “the last plantation” — or, more accurately, 535 little fiefdoms — led to the ultimate conclusion that each lawmaker could define Grassley’s inelegant phraseology based on whatever policy, employee equity or political algorithm they choose.

The perception is that the federal plans, in addition to being familiar, are bound to be better because of the government’s huge buying power and the novice nature of the exchanges. There are also some coverage and cost reasons why the Federal Employees Health Benefits program generally looks like the better option for parents and older employees. That’s why members were subjected to considerable stick-with-the-status-quo lobbying from their own aides, who warned of an exodus of senior staff unwilling to give up their policies.

Most of the top congressional leaders rejected those entreaties and have decided to send all their aides to the exchanges — at least partly to ward off complaints of the “what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander” variety.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose every move is made with his tough Kentucky re-election race in mind, and Speaker John A. Boehner are in this camp. So is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who says her decision seeks to send a signal of her fervent belief in the virtues of the exchanges that she worked so hard to help President Barack Obama bring to fruition.

The most prominent exception is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been vague while signaling that he’s decided the bulk of his staff will stay in the federal system. (It is true that the Senate’s payroll system can blur the distinctions between personal, committee and leadership aides in a way House accountants do not.)

Grassley, too, has adopted a middle-ground approach. While complaining that his own legislative intent — that all aides be in the exchanges — got lost somewhere along the way, he’s deferring to the Solomonic suggestion of the Senate bureaucrats: Purely Iowa staff go to the exchanges, but not the aides that focus on his work on five committees.

But other Republicans, anticipating complaints that they aren’t dishing out the same medicine many Americans must now experience, are going on offense with a pair of rationales for keeping their staff out of the exchanges altogether.

Some conservatives say the most unfair and hypocritical move of all would be to subject any of their employees to a centerpiece of Obamacare they have been crusading to repeal for the past three years.

And others have come up with reasoning that cunningly points to the party’s newest line of attack: Even if the president’s incessant promise about the law — “If you like your health insurance, you can keep it” — has come up so short, shouldn’t it at least apply on the Hill?

Recent Stories

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on the Supreme Court, dies at 93

Members want $26 billion for programs the Pentagon didn’t seek

Expelling bee — Congressional Hits and Misses

Appeals court rejects Trump push to dismiss Jan. 6 suits from lawmakers, police

Photos of the week ending December 1, 2023

House expels Rep. George Santos