GOP's cruel new debt-limit carrot: Cutting staff health benefits

In the GOP, cutting health care compensation for middle-income Congressional aides gets you more, not fewer, votes

Published October 15, 2013 6:48PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Sean Gardner)
(Reuters/Sean Gardner)

Here's a perspective worth keeping in mind as we watch House Republicans' final spasm in the fight over the debt limit.

In the GOP, cutting health care compensation for middle-income Congressional aides gets you more votes for your position, not fewer. And defaulting on the national debt is, to many, preferable to continuing to provide health compensation to middle-income aides.

House Republicans' debt-limit plan, which may or may not get a floor vote tonight, will incorporate the so-called Vitter amendment. You can read about a different version of the same concept here.

The backstory is that during the Congressional debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, tried to troll Democrats by proposing to kick members of Congress and their staffers off of their federal health plans, and then allow them to use their employer health care contribution to purchase coverage on one of the bill's insurance exchanges.

Democrats called his bluff, and adopted the provision. But when Harry Reid finalized the bill, the statutory text of the Grassley provision was ambiguous, and many Congressional principals, including John Boehner, worried it would eliminate the employer contribution altogether. They asked the Obama administration to intercede, and the Office of Personnel Management ultimately ruled that the bill did not propose nixing this compensation.

The snafu was initially misconstrued in the press as an attempt by Congress to "exempt" themselves from Obamacare. That characterization is false, but has become holy writ on the right, in some cases by genuinely confused people, in others by opportunists who are channeling frustration over their inability to destroy Obamacare into spite for Hill staffers. They're not proposing to end the health care contribution and replace it with cash compensation. They're proposing to cut their salaries by thousands of dollars a year. Someone has to pay. It might as well be them.

Again, it was never the intent of Congressional leaders to "exempt" themselves and their colleagues from Obamacare. And it was never the intent of the legislator who crafted the amendment to cut aide compensation. You don't even need to squint very hard at the final bill text to see what the real intent was:

"[T]he 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)."

The key words there are "may make available." If the intent of the ACA was to end employer-provided health care for members and their aides then the law wouldn't explicitly state that the Federal Government (the employer) can make ACA insurance available to them. If the ACA wanted to leave members and aides with nothing, it would have said so. Those left uninsured (think certain unmarried staffers, etc.) would have had no choice but to enter the exchanges or pay the penalty for not complying with the individual mandate. The Federal Government's role as employer would be gone.

But its role is right there in the bill. Supporters of the Vitter amendment would like to pretend otherwise. But nowhere does PPACA explicitly contemplate cutting Congressional compensation.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

MORE FROM Brian Beutler