For as long as the political fight took over the past year, the abbreviated review process on the health
care legislation currently pending on President Obama’s desk is
unquestionably going to result in some surprises — as happens with any
piece of mashed-up legislation — both for the congressmen who voted for
it and for the American people.
One such surprise is found on page 158 of the legislation, which appears to create a carveout for senior staff members in the leadership
offices and on congressional committees, essentially exempting those
senior Democrat staffers who wrote the bill from being forced to
purchase health care plans in the same way as other Americans.
A major story during the course of the health care debate was whether
members of Congress would commit to placing themselves in the same
health care exchanges as average citizens, or whether they would hang
on to their government plans — that’s why leadership chose to add this
portion to the bill, serving as a guarantee that members would
participate in the same health plans as the people. Here’s the relevant text:
(D) MEMBERS OF CONGRESS IN THE EXCHANGE-
(i) REQUIREMENT- Notwithstanding any other provision of law, after the effective date of this subtitle, the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and
congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of
Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are–
(I) created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or
(II) offered through an Exchange established under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act).
But as with a lot of legislative matters, the devil is in the details — or in this case, the definitions. As anyone who’s worked on
Capitol Hill knows, the personal office staff for a member is governed
by different rules than those who work on committees and in the
leadership offices. It appears from the way this language is written
that those staffers NOT in personal offices, such as those working and
paid under the committee structure (such as those working for Chairman
Henry Waxman) or those working on leadership staff (such as those
working for Speaker Nancy Pelosi) would be exempt from these
requirements (emphasis added).
(ii) DEFINITIONS- In this section:
(I) MEMBER OF CONGRESS- The term `Member of Congress’ means any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate.
(II) CONGRESSIONAL STAFF- The term `congressional staff’ means all full-time and part-time employees employed by the official office of a Member of Congress, whether in Washington, DC or outside of Washington, DC.
According to the Congressional Research Service, this definition of staff will only apply to those staffers employed within a member’s “personal office” —
meaning that it will absolutely not apply to committee staff members,
and may not apply to leadership staff.
This problem was acknowledged earlier in the process — last year, Senator Grassley tried to repair it, but he was rebuffed.
As Speaker Pelosi said a few weeks ago, it’s only after this legislation is passed that we’ll truly find out what’s in it.
Update: Grassley is renewing his push. Here’s a release from yesterday:
“It’s pretty unbelievable that the President and his closest advisors remain untouched by the reforms they pushed for the rest of the country. In other words, President Obama’s health care
reform won’t apply to President Obama,” Grassley said. “Last December,
the effort to apply any new law to administration political leaders was
rejected by the Senate Majority Leader. But there’s no justification
for the double standard, and I’ll continue to work to establish
The Senate legislation passed last night by the House of Representatives includes an amendment Grassley sponsored and got adopted by the Finance Committee last fall to have members of Congress
and their staffs get their health insurance through the same health
insurance exchanges where health plans for the general public would be
available. During the closed-door negotiations on the bill late last
year, the Senate Majority Leader carved out Senate committee and
leadership staff from this requirement.
Subsequently, Grassley and Senator Tom Coburn attempted to offer another amendment to restore the requirement during Senate debate on the health care bill, but the Senate Majority Leader would not let
their amendment to fix this loophole even come up for a vote. In
addition to Senate committee and leadership staff, the amendment
Grassley and Coburn filed during the Senate debate would have made the
President, the Vice President, top White House staff and cabinet
members all get their health insurance through the newly created
exchanges. It would not have applied to federal employees in the civil
Grassley said, “It’s only fair and logical that top administration officials, who fought so hard for passage of this overhaul of America’s health care system, experience it themselves. If it’s as good as
promised, they’ll know it first-hand. If there are problems, they’ll be
able to really understand them, as they should.”
Pass this on!