The big fight among members of Congress over the Affordable Care Act could spell big pay cuts — as much as $12,000 — for their employees.
How is this possible? Congressional staffers are most likely wondering the same thing.
Look back to the drafting of the act four years ago. At the time, Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley argued that if the health insurance exchanges were good enough for ordinary Americans, they should be good enough for members of Congress and their staff members. Democrats went along with his argument, and it was included in the law.
Now, however, the health insurance benefits of some 16,000 congressional staff have been sucked into the contentious Obamacare debate, and all congressional — and some executive branch — staff could end up taking big pay cuts.
Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate are now calling it a matter of "fairness" to end a special sweetheart deal (Twitter hashtag: #FairnessForAll). The way they describe it, members of Congress and their staff were given special treatment by the Obama administration to get "taxpayer-funded subsidies" to help pay for their health insurance.
But a closer look at the actual text of the so-called Vitter amendment shows that the subsidy we're talking about here is the "government contribution" toward those staffers' health care insurance premiums. Replace the word "government" with "employer," and it becomes clear that the money is simply the same health insurance benefit that most Americans get from their private employers, companies large and small.
The problem began with a drafting glitch in the bill: The final language does not account for the employer's share of the insurance premium. Even Grassley has acknowledged that eliminating the employer's contribution was not what he had in mind. To address this, leaders in both chambers worked with the White House over the summer to come up with a rule that allows the existing employer contributions to keep flowing — about $5,000 for singles and $12,000 for family coverage.
And that's where things stood until Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter began pushing to eliminate that benefit — not just for Congress and its staff (the target of the Grassley amendment) but also for the president, the vice president and political appointees in the executive branch.
So far the Senate has shown little interest in agreeing to this plan. But if House Republicans succeed in enacting it in return for passing a spending bill, the financial pain for their own employees could be considerable.
Because while members of Congress are paid $174,000 a year, most of their staff members make a fraction of that. In the case of a lower-paid staffer who is supporting a family, the loss of the employer share could amount to a 20 percent cut or more from the total compensation package.
In fact, at the lower salary levels, it could qualify congressional staffers for generous tax credits available under the Affordable Care Act or even make them eligible for Medicaid, depending on which state they live in and whether they have families.
S.V. Dáte is the congressional editor on NPR's Washington Desk.