A debate among congressional Republicans over a potential line of attack on Obamacare is pitting their pocketbooks against the chance at political gold.
At issue is a requirement in the law that congressional staffers purchase their health insurance in the exchange markets. The Office of Personnel Management recently ruled that the federal government can continue providing a subsidy to use in the exchange markets, which critics such as Senator David Vitter have railed against as a special exemption from the law for Congress.
But at a closed-door conference meeting this morning in the Capitol basement as they discussed a proposal to reverse the ruling, some lawmakers were more concerned about their own well-being.
“Before you support this, go home and talk to your wife,” said Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, who warned colleagues the change would amount to a 7 percent cut to their paychecks.
Representative Joe Barton of Texas said that he had never been a wealthy man. The change, he estimated, would cost him $12,000. “That’s a burden. And it’s a burden on our staff, too.”
Speaker John Boehner told Barton that he understood where he was coming from, but that it is “very difficult to explain to the American people.”
Then Representative Phil Gingrey spoke up. Gingrey has led the charge in the House to end the subsidy, introducing the “No Special Treatment for Congress Act” and joining Vitter on a letter to OPM questioning whether its ruling is legal.
The Georgia Republican, whose latest personal financial-disclosure forms show his net worth is at least $3 million, had little sympathy for lawmakers and even less for staff.
Capitol Hill aides, he said “may be 33 years old now and not making a lot of money. But in a few years they can just go to K Street,” the Washington, D.C., vernacular for becoming a lobbyist, “and make $500,000 a year. Meanwhile I’m stuck here making $172,000 a year.”
The comment incensed some of the GOP aides in the room, two of whom relayed Gingrey’s comments to me. One person noted that many lower-rung congressional aides make relatively low wages and have no real expectation of a future cash-out.
In a phone interview, Gingrey said he does not remember exactly what he said, but his point was that “it is completely unfair for members of Congress and Hill staffers to get this special treatment that the general public are not getting.”
“I was engaged in a dialogue with some members of our conference who truly believe that Congress should get special treatment. And some also believe that staff members should get special treatment. I happen not to believe that,” he added.
The episode underscores the politics of pushing to end the subsidy. Politically, it’s a no-brainer. Mix special treatment for Congress with an already unpopular law and you have the equivalent of dynamite.
But were GOP leaders to embrace ending the subsidy, it would significantly reduce the income of the world’s most well-connected special-interest group: the denizens of Capitol Hill.
Vitter, for example, has seen Senate Democrats dredge up his 2007 prostitution scandal, and even threaten to remove the subsidy only for people who vote to remove the subsidy. Those are beyond even the normal hardball tactics on Capitol Hill and show a special viciousness.
But the issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon, and could easily morph into something like earmarks, which drew blood for years and years until they were finally done away with.
Congressmen and staffers may want to start discussing it with their wives.