Congressional Staff Continue to be Punching Bag

This morning on WTOP’s morning program Rep. Andy Harris (MD-1) blamed the government shutdown on Democrats’ refusal to remove the “gold-plated” health care benefit from the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  That’s the provision that allows the government to chip in for Members and their staff’s health benefits.  Interestingly, fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a sponsor of the provision, always thought the employer benefit should be made available.

Two previous blogs on this issue explain the provision in the Affordable Care Act that makes Members and their personal office staff the only group of workers in the ENTIRE country that is REQUIRED to enter the Exchange.  As such, the law is silent on whether they should get help with premiums from their employer, in this case the federal government.

Think about if Congressional staff were like engineers at IBM.  Obamacare would require all executives and engineers to be in the Exchanges while all the other employees – secretaries, accountants, lawyers, and the rest – could stay on Big Blue’s health care program with IBM contributing to the cost.  Continuing the analogy, Rep. Harris’ attempt to remove the “gold-plating” would require the executives and engineers to pay the entire cost of their health benefit out of their own pocket with after-tax dollars.  Regardless of whether that is fair or not, such a plan would certainly put IBM at a disadvantage as they tried to recruit or retain executives and engineers.

The current turnover rate of Capitol Hill staff is already high.  A recently released Congressional Management Foundation survey found nearly half of Congressional staffers were planning to look for other employment in the next year.  When asked why they stay, 72% said the benefits were an influencing factor.  At a time when the House and Senate are dysfunctional at best, shouldn’t Congress be looking for ways to retain experienced staff?

Questioning Obamacare is legitimate, but laying blame for the shutdown on Democrats protecting a benefit for their staff that is common in the private sector and enjoyed by ever other government employee is a stretch.  It is worth noting that this provision only ended up in Obamacare because of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that passed the Senate HELP committee (12-11) with the help of three Democrats.  If you want to know which one of the three is still in office, go watch this video clip of the mark-up.

My previous blog posts on this subject have made the case that the benefit provision language in Obamacare is Coburn’s language not Grassley’s. While Coburn’s amendment sets the structure for which GROUP of workers is included in the law, he would have required these workers to be in the Public Option.  Grassley’s amendment, which defined congressional workers more broadly and made explicit that the employer match was to be used, put them into the Exchange.  As the final bill contained no Public Option, the provision language in Obamacare is a bit of a hybrid using Coburn’s structure and Grassley’s placement.

Here are two very good blogs on the issue, one at and another at that explain this in more detail.

Harkins_100x100Mark Harkins is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.

Twitter: @mbh1165