Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter and political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, is managing editor of Health Care News.
For as long as the political fight took over the past year, the abbreviated review process on the health care legislation currently pending on President Obama's desk is unquestionably going to result in some surprises - as happens with any piece of mashed-up legislation - both for the congressmen who voted for it and for the American people.
One such surprise is found on page 158 of the legislation, which appears to create a carve out for senior staff members in the leadership offices and on congressional committees, essentially exempting those senior Democrat staffers who wrote the bill from being forced to purchase health care plans in the same way as other Americans.
A major story during the course of the health care debate was whether members of Congress would commit to placing themselves in the same health care exchanges as average citizens, or whether they would hang on to their government plans - that's why leadership chose to add this portion to the bill, serving as a guarantee that members would participate in the same health plans as the people. Here's the relevant text:
(D) MEMBERS OF CONGRESS IN THE EXCHANGE-
(i) REQUIREMENT- Notwithstanding any other provision of law, after the effective date of this subtitle, the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are-
(I) created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or
(II) offered through an Exchange established under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act).
But as with a lot of legislative matters, the devil is in the details - or in this case, the definitions. As anyone who's worked on Capitol Hill knows, the personal office staff for a member is governed by different rules than those who work on committees and in the leadership offices.
It appears from the way this language is written that those staffers NOT in personal offices, such as those working and paid under the committee structure (such as those working for Chairman Henry Waxman) or those working on leadership staff (such as those working for Speaker Nancy Pelosi) would be exempt from these requirements (emphasis added).
(ii) DEFINITIONS- In this section:
(I) MEMBER OF CONGRESS- The term `Member of Congress' means any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate.
(II) CONGRESSIONAL STAFF- The term `congressional staff' means all full-time and part-time employees employed by the official office of a Member of Congress, whether in Washington, DC or outside of Washington, DC.
According to the Congressional Research Service, this definition of staff will only apply to those staffers employed within a member's "personal office" - meaning that it will absolutely not apply to committee staff members, and may not apply to leadership staff.
This problem was acknowledged earlier in the process - last year, Senator Grassley tried to repair it, but he was rebuffed.
As Speaker Pelosi said a few weeks ago, it's only after this legislation is passed that we'll truly find out what's in it.
By Ben Domenech:
Reprinted with permission from The New Ledger.