Republicans Are Willing to Threaten Default Unless They Can Give Their Staff a Pay Cut

The shutdown/debt-ceiling showdown is getting weirder.
Louisiana Senator David Vitter, whose bill would stop congressional staff from getting subsidies to buy health insurance. (Reuters)

It's come to this: Tea Party conservatives are now threatening to blow up the economy unless Congress stops covering the cost of health insurance for its staffers. 

With the debt ceiling deadline approaching and the Senate working toward some sort of compromise legislation, House Republicans are hashing out their own bill that would reopen the government and stave off a calamitous debt default. Sadly, the National Review's Robert Costa reports conservatives are insisting that it include a full version of the so-called "Vitter amendment," which, as Matt Yglesias has put it, is essentially "nonsensical across-the-board paycut for congressional staff that is masquerading as an anti-Obamacare measure."

Here's the backstory of this truly pointless legislative stunt.

Under Obamacare, Congress members and their staff are required to purchase their health coverage from the law's private insurance exchanges (yes, the same ones that have been suffering from horrible glitches during the past couple weeks). The idea is that they should experience the market firsthand just like ordinary Americans.

The problem is, the exchanges are designed for people who don't get health coverage from their jobs. Congress members and their staff obviously do. But, possibly thanks to a drafting error, it wasn't clear from the law's language whether congressional offices could pitch in to help cover the cost of insurance on private exchanges. 

In other words, it seemed that under Obamacare, workers on Capitol Hill would have to go without any employer provided health insurance, which would make working on Capitol Hill an even more unappealing prospect than it already is today. Unless you happen to believe talented individuals should be discouraged from working in Congress at all costs, this is a rather poor piece of policy. 

Eventually, the Office of Personnel Management stepped in with a fix, and decreed that congressional offices could, in fact, help employees cover the cost of buying insurance on the exchanges.

This move enraged certain conservatives, who accused Congress of giving itself "special treatment." In response, Louisiana Senator David Vitter has proposed an amendment to make absolutely sure Congress members and their, along with certain political appointees and the President, don't get federal help paying for insurance. 

Of course, for many Congress members, this wouldn't be a particularly big deal. Plenty are millionaires. And hey, some could probably manage to get on their spouse's health plan.

But for staffers, many of whom work for very little pay, this could be the difference between getting health coverage and going without. That's why, for a while, there was talk about passing a "narrower" Vitter amendment that would only include the politicians while sparing their staffers. Some reports from the last couple hours have suggested that's what's headed for the House bill. If so, the legislation will be pointless, though not needlessly punitive to legislative assistance.  But, if Costa is right, Congress's Tea Partiers won't be happy with anything less than the full Vitter, a situation probably best summed up in this tweet from Luke Russert:

UPDATE 5:01 PM: The House Republicans have released their plan, and indeed includes the full Vitter amendment. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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