Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said Thursday he is frustrated by the continuing battle over health benefits for members of Congress and their staff, which he attributes to a drafting mistake in the Affordable Care Act by Democrats.
Grassley sponsored the original amendment requiring lawmakers and staffers to enter the Obamacare exchanges, but he didn't intend for them to lose the employer subsidy.
"It is frustrating, but it's most frustrating because if they had let those of us who knew anything about health care draft this amendment, we wouldn't have this controversy," Grassley said.
Grassley said staff for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not properly draft the statutory language for his amendment, omitting language that would have allowed lawmakers and staff to keep their employer contribution while in the exchanges.
After the Office of Personnel Management issued a ruling that allowed them to keep their employer contributions anyway, some in the GOP cried foul. An attempt by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to reverse the OPM rule and expand the staff covered, including all political appointees, has since roiled the Senate.
Grassley has said repeatedly that the OPM rule was in line with the original intent of the amendment, despite the amendment not being his.
"You understand that when we adopt an amendment in [the] Finance [Committee], unlike other committees it's not legal language," he said. "We described it. But then it went to Reid's office and when they put it in statutory language, they screwed that up."
"You can call it anything you want to," Grassley said when the language that became law was characterized as "a result of a drafting error."
"But if you want to know the truth, they had people who didn't know what they were doing. I don't know what their intent was," Grassley continued. "My goal, regardless of how the amendment was worded ... was that we [in Congress] need to go into the exchange so that we would have to go through the same red tape as every other citizen."
Grassley pointed to his work in 1995 on the Congressional Accountability Act, which applied 12 civil rights, labor and workplace safety laws (such as the Civil Rights Act, Americans With Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act) to Congress, which had exempted itself from those laws for decades.
As Grassley explained, "We didn't have to abide by those laws; we're employers, too, you know."
Along those lines, the Iowa Republican said he wanted the Affordable Care Act to apply to Congressional employees as well.
"When I was holding my town meetings in 2009, my constituents said to me, 'Well, if it's good enough for us, isn't it good enough for you?' And that's the theory behind my amendment," Grassley said.
Regardless, if the Vitter amendment ever does get a vote, senators will have to make the politically difficult choice of whether to vote to preserve a major benefit for themselves and their staff.
UPDATE, Sept. 27 at 4 p.m.: Mark Harkins at the Georgetown University Government Affairs Institute has more details on how the language written into the ACA ended up dropping members of Congress and their staffs from qualifying for employer contributions. He writes that there were actually dueling provisions to force members of Congress and their staffers onto the exchanges. There was the measure from Grassley in the Finance Committee — which was more detailed and maintained employer contribution — and an amendment from Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which also marked up a health care bill. Coburn's language, as written, prevented members and staff from receiving contributions. It appears, based on text, Reid chose Coburn's language over Grassley's. You can watch fun video of Coburn and the 2009 HELP markup of the amendment here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3G3TyhhvDuM&feature=youtu.be
The more you know.