“I’m going to hang in here like a hair in a biscuit. I’m digging in for the long haul. This place is worse than I thought.”
-- Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
In 11th-hour negotiations ahead of its August recess, Congress worked out a bipartisan accord to--protect its members and their staffs from a flaw in President Obama’s 2010 health law.
Cue the sad trombone.
A provision included in the law at the urging of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, demands that Congress and congressional staffers get their health insurance through Obamacare. Democrats balked at the time, but couldn’t say no to the coverage as they were extolling its virtues.
But as the program gets going, it turns out that the provision doesn’t have a way for the federal government to pay for the employer share of premiums for staffers. The law is built on government subsidy for health insurance, but not this kind of government subsidy.
The effect was that at the start of the New Year, Hill staffers were going to get rocked with huge premium spikes. The government couldn’t just cut them a check to offset the difference since that would be taxable income. The potential for thousands and thousands of dollars in premium payouts was hanging heavy over the Capitol.
For poorly-paid young staffers it likely meant forgoing insurance. For older, more valuable staffers it meant expediting the trip from more modestly-paid government work to the Elysian Fields of lobby shops, non-profit puffery or contracting. The age old dilemma for lawmakers is how to retain valued staff members. If they’re valuable to you, they’re going to eventually monetize your trust on K Street.
Usually some combination of patriotism and the promise of fatter paydays for selling out later rather than sooner can be counted on to prevent top-tier folks from bolting too soon. But even so, how do you keep them down on the federal farm once they’ve seen an expense-account dinner at Bourbon Steak?
Add in what could have been a $6,000 Obamacare penalty for staying put, and an already dysfunctional Congress would have popped its zippers as the handful of humans who know how to run things suddenly departed. And lawmakers were eager to resolve the problem now, before their aides had the summer recess to go job hunting and leave lawmakers without help as final negotiations for budget and debt fights got underway.
To prevent the premium spike, Congress needed a new regulation from President Obama’s Office of Personnel Management that changed the cash flow so that the employer contribution could flow directly into what the law calls health insurance exchanges. With the threat of a nominee blockade and much anxiety in the air, Obama agreed to make the change despite his evident concerns about granting one more exemption from the law that bears his name.
Maybe you think it’s just deserts for a Congress that produced such shoddily crafted legislation, but whatever you think about the rightness or wrongness of the change itself, the timing of it is a great illustration of why Americans hold Washington in such contempt.
Americans are freaking out over this law and what it means for them, their jobs, their taxes, their personal information, their doctors and their overall quality of care. This is as close to a national discussion on policy as you are likely to get. And when even a growing list of unions and the Democrat in charge of the agency tasked with enforcing the law say they’d rather not be covered by Obamacare, you know that this isn’t just red states versus blue states.
There’s plenty to be fixed in the law, the implementation of which is turning into a multi-month migraine for the administration. It is telling, though, that the only place where Congress and the White House could hammer out a bipartisan deal to repair the law was on that which touches their own privileged lives inside the Beltway.
Accepting gridlock on the health law as well as the looming fiscal fights of September and then heading home for vacation is somewhat understandable. After all, it’s not as if more talks are going to somehow convince Republicans to raise taxes again or have the president change his mind on cutting spending. But to take care of themselves on the way out of town is just insulting to a nation that already feels so slighted by this city.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.