Should the Senate Force Obama Into Obamacare?

by Benjamin Domenech on 7:12 pm March 23, 2010

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A follow up is in order to my piece of two days ago, regarding the surprising news that senior staffers in leadership and on committees were exempted from the requirement to participate in health exchange plans.

It turns out that this is a problem Sen. Chuck Grassley has been trying to solve for some time. It follows on Grassley’s arguments, back in December, describing the requirement in question as a “real cute thing, to give exemptions for some people on Capitol Hill but not for others.”

Grassley’s December language would’ve required far more than just members of Congress and congressional staff to participate — he wanted to extend the requirement to the President, the Vice President, top White House staff and cabinet members (exempting federal civil employees) and also making them ineligible for FEHB. That’s the real strike against this, as it would prevent access to that nice Blue Cross Blue Shield coverage they typically enjoy.

Over at NRO, Robert Costa followed up with Grassley today, and he showed no sign of flagging — perhaps signaling his intention to try to force Senate Democrats to vote against his loophole-fixing measure during debate on the reconciliation package:

“I’m the author of the Congressional Accountability Act,” [Grassley] says. “That was passed in 1995. Prior to that, Congress had passed 12 laws from which it exempted itself. I thought it was wrong to have one law for Congress, and one law for the rest of the country. I got that passed, and now we all have to abide by the civil-rights laws, the labor laws, and the minimum-wage laws. So, it is quite natural for me, in the Finance Committee, to ask congressmen and their staffs, and everyone on the Hill, to be included. And since this is going to be called Obamacare, the president should be included as well.”

At Hotline, Reid Wilson pointed out that this small passage would have an impact on thousands of Hill staffers:

There are 16 active leadership offices in the House and 26 in the Senate, according to the government transparency website LegiStorm. Some are small, with just a few employees. Others are much larger; Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid 54 employees a total of $1.1M in the last quarter of ’09, while House Min. Leader John Boehner paid his 26 staffers a total of $721K in the same quarter. Leaving out committee staffers means aides at the 24 standing House committees and the 20 Senate panels will each be exempted as well, if CRS’s interpretation of the measure stands.

One side note: Wilson also quotes an unnamed Democrat source accusing Republicans of being the originators of the language. It appears the language was added when the bill was in a far different form, during the course of debate within the HELP Committee, at which point the discussion was focused on a public plan (which was later removed, of course). Judd Gregg actually voted against the current language, saying he wouldn’t want his dog to be forced into a public plan — it was HELP Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, and the addition of a proxy vote for the absent Ted Kennedy, who were the deciding votes to add it. After the bill emerged from the Finance Committee without the public plan, the majority blocked the efforts to close the loophole on the floor.

Update: Politico has a story about this which notes the craziness on Capitol Hill — staffers nervous about who’s going to get what coverage. Welcome to the American experience:

“There is a view held by many people that committee work is more stable. It pays a little better and you’re not as subject to the cyclical nature of elections,” one House Republican staffer said. “So, there is a perception that overall, committee staff have better jobs. This is an inequity.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said he’s heard nervous cloakroom and speaker’s lobby staffers discussing their confusion over which staffers would be covered and which would not.

“Staff is already buzzing about it. It creates disillusionment because of the uncertainty. Obviously staffers are anxious about it,” Chaffetz said. “The whole bill is full of loopholes, it’s such a mess.”

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