By Andy Cohen
Reports out of Washington today are that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their contingents have reached an agreement to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. If the deal is passed, the government will reopen until at least January 15, and the debt ceiling will be raised until February 7, while putting the framework in place for a round of overall budget negotiations.
Talks between the two Senate leaders were put on hold yesterday in order to allow Speaker Feckless and his merry band of House Hooligans one last chance to pass a plan of their own to bring this latest debacle of American (nee, Republican) political incompetence to an end.
They failed. Miserably. Speaker Feckless brought several different measures before his House Republican Caucus in an effort to prove how in control he is and to ostensibly preserve the “Hastert Rule,” whereby only measures that can earn a majority of the majority are brought to the floor for a vote.
One of the biggest points of contention in the final hours before the Senate was finally able to reach a deal? House Republicans were demanding that the inclusion of the full language of the so called “Vitter Amendment,” named after its author, Senator David “prostitution scandal” Vitter, R-LA. From the Republican point of view, the Vitter Amendment ensures that members of Congress and their staffs are not “shielded” from Obamacare.
What it actually does, though, is prohibits the federal government from contributing to Congressional staffers’ health insurance. “Reports indicate that the only way House Republicans will come together is if they get a chance to screw their staff,” wrote one reporter in The Atlantic.
Congressional staffers—on both the Republican and Democratic sides—are employees of the United States government, as if that needed to be explained. Employers—particularly large employers, and the federal government is certainly a large employer—are expected to provide health coverage to their employees. In fact, under the Affordable Care Act, any business employing more than 50 people is expected to make some sort of contribution toward employee health care or be forced to pay a fine.
As I’ve explained before, our entire system of health care is designed around employer provided health insurance. 44.6% of Americans currently get their health insurance from their employer, 52% in California. That’s the way the system is designed, and has been since World War II. Employees receive health coverage as a part of their compensation packages. Federal government employees are certainly no different. But apparently the Tea Party Republicans are not at all aware of that fact.
Previously Republicans demanded that Congressional staffers be required to choose their health insurance plans from the menu offered through the health insurance exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Democrats agreed. And now Republicans are demanding that the federal government be expressly prohibited from providing any subsidies toward a staffer’s health insurance. In other words, they want their staffers to be treated differently—and by differently I mean worse, far worse—than the employees of any other business or entity in the country. Not only would staffers lose their employer contributions toward their health care—most of whom earn rather meager salaries and depend on that health insurance policy—now they would be required to pay for their policies entirely out of pocket.
These are people who work full time, sometimes extremely long hours for modest pay. Staffers who in most cases earn $30,000 per year or less, many of whom could earn far more in the private sector. They have done the right thing, entered the workforce, followed the rules, and have a reasonable expectation of having their health insurance at least partially paid for.
To be clear, the Affordable Care Act was brought about to provide those who DO NOT receive health care benefits from an employer with an affordable (or at least more affordable) alternative to going without insurance at all. That’s not federal workers, nor should it be.
And now Republican members of Congress are looking to screw over their own employees simply out of spite; because they can.
Said one Republican Senate staffer in response to an inquiry by The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza:
I’ve been a staffer in a republican Senate office for 8 years. It’s extremely frustrating to have Vitter portray the employer contribution as some sort of exemption from the exchanges. My healthcare costs are already going to sky rocket, but being responsible for 100% of my premiums just isn’t realistic on my salary. I know I’m not the only staffer looking for a job off the hill because I knew this was a possibility. I can only assume the poor staff having to write the amendment language are hopefully throwing death glares at Vitter.
And one Republican Congressional staffer had this to say:
A House Republican staffer on the Vitter amendment (includes art!)… pic.twitter.com/CpChGYUNDp
— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) October 15, 2013
If Tea Party Republicans hate their own staffers this much, how much, then, do they hate Average Americans? Why is it that they want to ensure that FEWER people have access to health insurance?
But, if Republicans are now insistent on scrapping the system of employer provided health insurance, let’s have that talk. Universal health care is, after all, what most on the left wanted in the first place.