The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Congress governs self under 'Obamacare,' with discretion, coyness about who is covered and how

  • Print

WASHINGTON - Think you're confused by "Obamacare"? It's roiling Capitol Hill behind the scenes, too.

Members of Congress are governing themselves under President Barack Obama's signature law, which means they have great leeway in how to apply it to their own staffs.

For House members and senators, it's about a section of the law that may — or may not — require lawmakers to toss some staffers off their federal health insurance and into the Affordable Care Act's exchanges. The verdict from congressional officers is ultimately that lawmakers, as employers, have discretion over who among their staffs gets ejected, and who stays. And they don't have to say who, how many or why.

What they all say is this:

"I followed the law," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., echoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others.

But the law as written is open to broad interpretation, inspiring a bureaucratic web of memos, regulations and guidance that members of Congress say allows them to proceed on the question of staffers and coverage as they see fit. Lawmakers this week were required to finalize plans for who stays on federal insurance and who's forced onto an exchange.

The Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2010, only requires members of Congress and their "official" staff members to get health insurance through one of the law's marketplaces, or exchanges. Guidance memos from the Senate's financial clerk and the House's chief administrative officer, obtained by The Associated Press, define "official" aides as those who work in the lawmakers' personal offices. Committee and leadership aides, then, would be exempt and could stay on the federal health insurance program.

Unless lawmakers decide otherwise.

"Individual members or their designees are in the best position to determine which staff work in the official office of each member," the memos quote from an Office of Personnel Management regulation. "OPM will leave those determinations to the members. ... Nothing in this regulation limits a member's authority" on the matter.

The decisions were layered with Washington political logic that inspired many congressional leaders, Republicans and Democrats, to put all of their aides on the exchanges.

House Speaker John Boehner and all four Senate Republican leaders are among them, putting their entire staffs into the exchanges created by a law they loathe. That allows them to slam Democrats, the new health care law's chief defenders, who are keeping leadership and committee aides on the federal health insurance program.

"If these staffers aren't 'official,' then the taxpayer shouldn't pay for their salaries or office support or anything else," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., announcing legislation to force each congressional office to disclose the designation for each aide.

Many Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, are nullifying the hypocrisy charge by requiring all of their aides to get health insurance on an exchange.

But there are others.

Keeping the federal program for all of their staffers are House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., their spokesmen said.

And in the Senate, Democrats are split — and some are coy — about who's "official" and who's not.

"Me and my official staff are going into the D.C. exchange," Mikulski said Thursday, the deadline for deciding. She's the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, so she's got lots of staffers who aren't necessarily "official."

"The overwhelming majority of employees will be going on the exchanges," said Matt House, spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is in the Senate Democratic leadership. He declined to elaborate.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would only say that the Nevada Democrat is "following the law."

It all started with Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley and his amendment to Obama's health care law that would have required members of Congress and staffers to get the health coverage offered through the exchanges.

During the drawn-out debate, Democrats insisted that their goal was merely to provide uninsured Americans with the same kinds of coverage and choices that members of Congress have.

Grassley, in effect, dared his Democratic counterparts to back up their rhetoric: a "no" vote on his proposal would have undercut the argument that the law's supporters in Congress only wanted regular Americans to enjoy what they, themselves, had.

Grassley said his original intent was to put everyone who works for a member of Congress on the exchanges. But different language ultimately passed into law, and Grassley's idea isn't being applied as he intended.

In August, the Office of Personnel Management tossed the question back in Congress' lap by saying lawmakers' offices should individually decide which aides get insurance from where.

On Thursday, Grassley said he took the question and the "convoluted system" to the secretary of the Senate and came up with an answer. His personal staff will exit the federal insurance program and get health insurance from an exchange. But Grassley's aides on the Senate Finance Committee will remain on the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program.

"That's the law," he said.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Inside peek at Real Pirates, new Manitoba Museum exhibit

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Carolyn Kavanagh(10) had this large dragonfly land on her while spending time at Winnetka Lake, Ontario. photo by Andrea Kavanagh (mom0 show us your summer winnipeg free press
  • JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Local-(Standup photo)- Humming Around- A female ruby -throated hummingbird fly's through the bee bomb  flowers Friday at the Assiniboine Park English Garden- Nectar from flowers are their main source of food. Hummingbirds wings can beat as fast as 75x times second. Better get a glimpse of them soon the birds fly far south for the winter - from Mexico to South America- JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS- Sept 10, 2009

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should Premier Greg Selinger resign?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google