The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Lame Brain Drain

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


I am not suggesting that the Congressional staffers who may be seeking greener career pastures (due to changes in health care benefits) are “lame brains;” however, if they are responsible for most of the madness that emanates from Capitol Hill, I may have to reassess.  Rather, the much-ballyhooed, “sky-is-falling” brouhaha over the potential for intellectual flight from the Senate and House office buildings is itself a bit lame.

The latest sturm-und-drung emanating from the rotunda has to do with members of Congress, their employees, and the way they are treated by Obamacare.  In a sop to critics who insisted that the cloistered elite on Capitol Hill should actually have to abide by the same laws that they pass (be it in Obamacare or anything else for that matter), the legislators mandated that they and their staffs would be required to enroll in the exchanges designed to administer health care under the so-called Affordable Care Act.  For instance, a Representative from Texas would be required to enroll in the exchange established in that state, while his or her Washington-based legislative assistant residing on Capitol Hill or in Georgetown would enroll in the District of Columbia’s exchange.  So far, so good.

But the exchanges are intended for those individuals who do not enjoy employer-provided health care benefits.  In other words, the users would have to pay the whole bill, absent employer subsidies.  Given the high costs associated with this option, the law allows for federal subsidies to help offset these costs for lower income earners (say, up to about $40k or so).  In a twist for the Hill employees, though, those at the lower income levels (perhaps about half of the Congressional workforce) would not be allowed to enjoy the federal subsidies.  To offset this, all Hill staffers (and members of Congress) would still enjoy the equivalent amount of employer (read, taxpayer) support as the employer contribution had been under the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) plan, regardless of income level.

This “carve-out” has fueled yet more Obamacare controversy during the dog days of August, while the members are back home in their congressional districts.  Some critics think that it is a bait-and-switch from the original public relations ploy to have the legislative branch live under this controversial law.  No sooner had the staffers been rendered equal to the rest of the huddled masses forced to enroll in the exchanges than they were provided a caveat:  unlike the others, the Hillies would still enjoy the cushion of an employer contribution toward their individual health care costs.  In other words, they are forced to join the exchanges, but they will not be allowed to enjoy the subsidies associated with lower incomes, and so they’ll still get the employer contribution.  Put another way:  they will not be treated quite the same as individuals without employer benefits, nor will they be allowed to continue in the same FEHB health care packages as civil servants in the rest of the federal government.  So Hill staffers are in a class by themselves.  And, to complicate things further, committee staffers are exempt from the exchange requirement that effects all other staff from congressional member offices.

All because lawmakers are afraid that the health care situation facing others across the country will force staffers off of Capitol Hill.

The truth is that hard-working and ambitious young men and women are going to do what I did – that is, work for a pittance, living in sometimes squalid conditions and surviving on a diet of ramen and minute rice.  Why did I (and will they) endure such privations?  Because, like me, they recognize the trade-off of financial hardship at the outset, in exchange for the experience of working for a Member of Congress in the long run, and the cache’ that it carries (rightly or wrongly) in a competitive labor market.  In my case, it was working for Phil Gramm, the Senator from my home state of Texas.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t have parental subsidies or any other such “perks,” so my “sacrifices” were probably more amplified than those of my co-workers.  But I did have a desire to learn from one of the truly brilliant statesmen of our time.  And Gramm knew that, too:  those who successfully completed a tour of duty on his staff were recognized as valuable assets in the workforce.

In other words, the credential was worth the sacrifice.

So, please forgive me if Congress fears the flight of their best and brightest staffers.  I would counter this latest turmoil with two observations.  First, the truly dedicated will be immune to any special treatment regarding health care, and whatever is ultimately decided, they will adjust their own budget priorities accordingly.  Secondly, the congressional offices themselves could avoid outside criticism by enrolling in the exchanges just like all other exchange participants (i.e., without employer subsidies), while also adjusting the salaries of their employees to ensure that they remain competitive.  They can do so without increasing their overall Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA), while making tougher decisions on how they prioritize the spending of those MRAs:  for salaries or for supplies.  In any case, I will wager that the brain drain will amount to little more than a trickle.

 

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