October 1, 2013

Trying to come to an agreement with Republicans is like trying to play football against another team that uses guns and acid. They'll even throw their own people under the bus, like they did with last night's vote on the Vitter amendment -- or, as Republicans call it without a trace of conscious irony, the James Madison Congressional Accountability Act:

There's a new front in the battle over Obamacare: Republican congressional staffers are angry at their bosses for trying to deprive them of affordable insurance.

Like many Americans, most Congressional staffers receive health insurance through their employer, the federal government. And like most employers, the government covers a big portion of the cost: 75 percent. The Affordable Care Act changed this, requiring members of Congress and their staff to obtain coverage via the the health insurance exchanges created by the law. But the language in the law was unclear as to whether lawmakers and their aides would be able to keep using government money to purchase heath insurance. To clear this up, the Obama administration issued a proposed rule in August stating that the government would continue to cover 75 percent of congressional health benefits. The GOP latched onto this new regulation as an "outrageous exemption for Congress" and a "big fat taxpayer funded subsidy." Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), introduced bills that would strip out those employer contributions.

Yanking taxpayer subsidies for lawmakers makes sense politically for GOPers; it would be dangerous for Democratic lawmakers to reject a spending bill that slashes their benefits. But the proposed move has Congressional staffers—including Republicans—indignant.

"I understand it politically, and as a talking point," one rank-and-file Republican staffer says of the Vitter and McCaul measures. "But Congress literally threw staff under the bus on this… You're hurting staff assistants who are sorting your mail."

Staffers don't make as much money as you may think, he adds. "When I started on the Hill answering phone calls, I'd hear people saying, 'You're a rich congressional staffer,' and I'm like, 'you must be out of your mind.'" Some low-level congressional employees make as little as about $28,000 a year; House staff salaries are the lowest they've been since 2007. "We have folks in our office who don't make a lot of money," the GOP aide says, "and losing an employer contribution will make it hard on them."

Some Republican lawmakers agree: Rep. Peter King (R-NY), said Monday that junior staff members were being "sacrificed" for a political game. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told ABC that bumping up health care costs for staffers was "probably not a good idea," adding that low-paid staffers will "suffer."

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, thinks the GOP has picked a losing strategy. "You never want your staffers unhappy," he says.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida), is of the same mind: "If you're going to stick pins in a voodoo doll, the doll shouldn't be people who work for you."

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