Using Hill Staff As Political Pawns
Oct 16, 2013
I’m going off topic for a few hundred words to support my former colleagues on Capitol Hill. If you want the fashion advice sans soap box, come back at 10:00AM for regularly scheduled programming.
It’s unavoidable that the disgust and anger that voters feel toward Members of Congress trickles down to their staff. But when Americans decide to “stick it to the man” by supporting policies designed to hurt Members of Congress–office budget and health care cuts–the people they really maim aren’t the elected officials. It’s the staff.
Stripping staff of their health benefits has become a linchpin in negotiations to end the Shutdown, and the idea of eliminating employer-sponsored insurance coverage for Congressmen and their employees is finding fans on all wavelengths of the political spectrum. Supporters of this proposal see congressional staff as leeches, sucking taxpayers dry. But they are real people with families who will be devastated by a policy meant to punish the 535 most hated people in America, many of whom are so wealthy that they won’t feel the sting.
Who are they? Hill staff are highly educated people (29-percent have advanced degrees) who work long hours doing challenging, often frustrating work. (You think you hate Congress, try working there.) Many staff are experts in areas like economics, veterans’ benefits, agriculture, etc. They oversee multi-billion dollar budgets and draft laws that affect millions of people.
What are they paid? The average legislative assistant, Congress’s mid-level workhorses, earns $45,982 per year. While the average salary for a private-sector, political professional in D.C. is $115,286.
Adjusted for inflation, staff salaries are nearly identical to 1990 rates. Congressional budgets have been cut by double digits since 2010 so raises are out of the question, and most staffers are feeling the same financial pangs that voters are feeling.
And in case you were wondering, Members of the House of Representatives make $174,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a 9.1% increase over their 1990 salary of $96,600.
As for benefits…Currently, congressional employees buy their health insurance from the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program. Staffers pay the employee contribution, and the government covers the employer portion. On average, the government pays 72% of the premium for a federal employee. Private sector employers who offer similar coverage pay an average of 73% per employee.
Congressional employees don’t get special, “gold-plated” insurance. They have the same coverage that other federal employees can purchase from insurers like Blue Cross. But on January 1, a change written into the healthcare law will force staffers to give up their current employee coverage and buy insurance through the exchanges. The government wants to continue paying its employer contribution on these policies, but ultra-conservatives have labeled that a “subsidy.”
As NPR explains, however, the result would be the same type of coverage many Americans will receive with only the typical employer portion covered, not a “sweetheart deal.” And it would not be the same coverage other federal employees receive, as only congressional staff were forced into the exchanges.
How does this effect average Americans? Several staffers who spoke with The New Yorker believe that if they have to cover the entire cost of their insurance, they will be force to leave the Hill. Most voters care little about this collateral damage, but they should.
As salaries and benefits are reduced, beleaguered staffers are leaving the government in droves. Studies and newspaper articles have pointed out that Congress’s “brain drain” is forcing knowledgeable, experienced staff out, creating turnover that decimates institutional knowledge, leading to ill-informed policies and more partisan rancor. And eliminating health coverage will only accelerate the breakdown.
I wrote this post because it kills me to see public servants used as pawns. Working in a congressional office isn’t a job, it’s a calling. No one does it to get rich. Staffers accept the long hours, the non-competitive pay and the angry voices on the other end of the phone because they are trying to help their fellow Americans, sometimes for very personal reasons.
If you want your public policy written by subject matter experts who toil over bill language and budgets trying to do what they believe is right, then you musn’t let a handful of partisan politicians steal the benefits that staffers earn through their labor. Congress can’t recruit and retain the best people for important jobs when national magazines run headlines like, “Why Would Anybody in Her Right Mind Go to Work for a Congressman?“