Most Congressional staffers are not highly paid. In fact, they tend to earn in the $25-35k per year range. But one thing they do have which helps to offset relatively low pay in one of the most expensive cities in the country is a generous employers contribution toward their health insurance.
Until now, congressional staffers have received that insurance through the Federal Health Benefits Program (FEHB). With the roll out of Obamacare, they are now required to obtain that insurance through the exchanges.
Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) is so concerned for his staffers and those of other Congressmen that he has said that he will file a lawsuit to prevent the government from contributing to any of these policies. Way to go Senator, nothing like instilling loyalty and raising morale among your lowest paid employees.
The provision in the law which requires the shift was introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA). And while it originally included the stipulation that they were to “use their existing employer contribution,” that language did not make it into the final bill. Initially that raised questions as to whether or not the government could continue making the contributions.
In August, the Office of Personnel Management ruled that Congress and staffers could use that contribution to offset the premium costs of policies purchased on the exchanges. This angered Congressional TEApublicans who pledged to refuse the contribution and work to eliminate what they called a “special exemption” for them and their staffers. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) introduced legislation to that end and TEApublicans considered including it in the CR to reopen the government after their shutdown.
Harry Reid and Congressional Democrats refused to accept it and it went nowhere. Reid told the Huffington Post,
“Okay. Go after members of Congress. But even doing that. Now, I can handle if I have to buy insurance without employer contribution. But some of my senators can’t, forget about that. Forget about senators. They can do okay. But staff — we have staff people of [Sen.] Susan Collins. She has people who work in Maine and make $25,000 a year. One of the reasons you can get somebody like that is that you give them health care. … How in good conscience could you do something like that?”
How do staffers feel about the idea of losing this benefit? A small sampling of excerpts from emails solicited by Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker Magazine:
From Republican staffers:
“It’s definitely a morale killer. We’ve been dealing with stagnant pay, long hours—including weekends and federal holidays—but hey, at least we have good benefits. This will suck. I know the public doesn’t have much sympathy, but these are not easy jobs. If they hate Congress, imagine working for it.”
“I’ve been a staffer in a republican Senate office for 8 years. It’s extremely frustrating to have Vitter portray the employer contribution as some sort of exemption from the exchanges. My healthcare costs are already going to sky rocket, but being responsible for 100% of my premiums just isn’t realistic on my salary.”
“For those congressional staffers saying they agree and support their bosses call for the Vitter amendment, which is a major morale killer and kick in the gut to staff, all I have to say iS stop drinking [the Koolaid].”
And from the Democratic side:
“I will make $22,800 this year after taxes… I need my health insurance, and I cannot afford to pay $600 a month for coverage. Without this so called “subsidy” (the same “subsidy” congressional staffers have been receiving for years before the ACA) both myself and my son will be uninsured…I am not “entitled.” I am not a leech. I work. I pay bills.”
“You’ve got to be f***ing kidding me with this. Wouldn’t the Vitter amendment lead to an actual exemption for Congress? If Congress, as an institution employing thousands of workers, did not contribute to its employees’ health care like most companies do, isn’t that an exemption? Maybe not an exemption under law per se, but an exemption according to standard practice.”
“I can guarantee you that if our subsidy were taken away, I would immediately start looking for work in the private sector. I have absolutely no problem with participating in the health exchanges—this is, as many have pointed out, not about Obamacare. But there is no way I could stay in this job indefinitely if I had to shoulder the entire burden of my family’s health care. I care deeply about Congress and have always felt extremely privileged to work here and more than willing to sacrifice the higher pay, better hours and other perks I might find off the Hill. But there’s a limit to what we can absorb, and I know I speak for a great many of my colleagues.”
No one can blame these staffers for having negative feelings about being used as pawns in a game of partisan politics. They do not receive the perks that their bosses do. They are not highly paid. They are there because they believe in what they are doing. They want to contribute something to their country and are willing to work long, hard hours for pay that comes nowhere near what they could be earning in the private sector with their qualifications. Senator Johnson, you need to take a course in employee relations and learn how to treat people. They are human beings, not pawns on your chessboard to be sacrificed in your quest to take your opponent’s king.