While most staffers will soon be required to purchase insurance plans created in the health care reform bill, their colleagues who work in leadership and committee offices may be off the hook.
A provision of the act — which President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday — requires only that "Members of Congress and congressional staff" have access to health care options created in the legislation. But the bill defines staff as employees who work in a Member's "official office," a term that does not appear to include staffers in committee and leadership offices.
The disparity angers Republican Members and staffers, who argue that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Senate leaders deliberately excluded their own staff from legislation that would narrow their choices for health care.
"During Senator Reid's closed-door writing of the bill, leadership and committee staff exempted themselves from the reforms, which had been applied to members of Congress and their staffs," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement Tuesday. "Congressional leaders let the carve out stand. It's an inexcuseable double standard."
Democratic leadership aides pointed out Tuesday that the language applies to both Democratic and Republican staffers and was originally suggested by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.). And while Reid spokesman Jim Manley conceded that the provision excludes committee staff from the requirement, he denied that it definitively excludes leadership staff. "As far as the Senate is concerned, leadership staff' are not technically considered to be committee staff," he said.
Currently, all Members and staffers get their health care plans under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which offers hundreds of different health care plans to millions of government employees. Experts consider it a good deal: The government pays a majority of an employee's premium, and stiff competition among insurance companies ensures the program's negotiation power.
Lawmakers and their staff may face narrower choices under the reform bill, which requires the federal government to offer them only health plans that are either created under the act or offered through an exchange established under the act. That means staffers may have to buy their insurance in exchanges that are run by the states and include insurance companies that have met certain federal standards.
But a significant number of staffers may get to keep their current plan, if a recent Congressional Research Service memo is correct in speculating that the reform act excludes leadership and committee staffers from the requirement. More than 160 staffers work in just the leadership offices of Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), according to LegiStorm, which tracks Congressional salaries. The exception could also extend to the rest of leadership and to the dozens of committees in the House and Senate.
The saga began last year, when Republicans were railing against a possible public option and thus pushed Congress to apply such controversial programs to itself. But the final provision was inserted last fall, when Reid merged two reform bills: one from the Finance Committee and one from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Each included language requiring that Members and Congressional staffers enter into the health plans created by the bill.
Senate leaders eventually decided on language from Coburn (a member of the HELP panel) and tossed out a wider-reaching provision from Grassley, who is the top Republican on the Finance Committee.
But by that time, Coburn and Grassley had realized that the chosen provision excluded leadership and committee staff, according to the Senators' spokesmen. They offered a fix when the bill hit the floor, but Reid declined to recognize it.
Manley said in an e-mail Tuesday that Reid chose Coburn's provision over Grassley's because of concern that the latter's language "would also include people like legislative counsel, Architect of the Capitol, etc."
But while Grassley's language was broad, the Coburn alternative seems to be overly restrictive. A December memo from the CRS found that the language could exclude leadership staffers, as well as committee staffers and "shared staffers" who work in multiple Members' offices.
"[I]t appears possible to argue that the definition ... excludes any staff not directly affiliated with a Member's individual or personal office," the memo reads. "Should this interpretation be adopted by an implementing body or a court, it would appear that it would exclude professional committee staff, joint committee staff, some shared staff, as well as potentially those staff employed by leadership offices including, but not limited to, the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate, Minority Leader of the House, Minority Leader of the Senate, as well as the Whip offices in both the House and Senate."
The authors of the memo also reviewed Grassley's provision, which defined Congressional staff as those whose paychecks are disbursed by either the Secretary of the Senate or the House Chief Administrative Officer. The finding: It would be "possible to argue" that the provision would require committee, leadership and most other Congressional staff to follow the health care reform act. But the memo's authors also argue that employees in legislative branch agencies such as the AOC and the Capitol Police could continue on their current plan unaffected.
Now Grassley hopes to offer that provision as an amendment during Senate debate on the reconciliation bill, with the added requirement that top administration officials also have to enter into a health care plan created by the reform act. But it seems unlikely that will go anywhere: Senate leaders hope to make as few changes to the House-passed bill as possible.
In the House, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) is also considering a stand-alone bill to similarly broaden the provision. But spokeswoman Lauren Bean said that so far it's "just an idea." "We don't have language yet," she said. But "he is interested and seriously considering and working on legislation."
One Democratic aide said Congressional leaders want to fix the provision but have been thwarted by Republican "obstruction."
"This is a Republican addition to the reform bill, so we'll see what their proposal on it is after the Senate finishes with reconciliation," the aide said. "Let's not forget that House Republicans voted against providing Americans the same insurance choices that they enjoy as Members of Congress."
But in a statement Tuesday, Coburn lobbed the accusation back at Democrats.
"The American people will be appalled to learn the health care bill exempts leadership and committee staff," he said. "This special deal for unelected staff underscores everything the public detests about the arrogance of power in Washington."