Congressional staffers are famously underpaid and overworked. Soon, if some Republican lawmakers get their way, they’ll also lose their employer-provided health insurance. Yes, perhaps they share some blame for getting us into this mess, but how can members of Congress do good work if great people no longer want to work for them? “I can report that the brain drain is already happening,” says Brad Fitch, the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that helps lawmakers improve their office operations. “We got a call from a staff member who has been working on Capitol Hill for 30 years to ask, ‘Do you have any openings?’ ”
The drain was opened by a provision—tucked into the Affordable Care Act by GOP senators—that requires members of Congress and their staffs to give up their federal employee insurance coverage in favor of the health care exchanges. (Committee aides are exempt.) The administration ruled this year that Hill offices could still cover their employees, but Republicans balked, saying the rule meant special treatment for lawmakers. Now they’re trying to override the decision through the courts and by attaching an amendment by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to a continuing resolution to fund the government. If they succeed, aides would have to pay 100 percent of their insurance premiums out of pocket, unless their bosses have set aside money or the aides qualify for federal subsidies.
Whether the tactic is successful or not, the uncertainty over health coverage is already reverberating through the marble corridors. “It’s clearly having an impact on short-term recruiting,” Fitch says, noting that a chief of staff recently told him she couldn’t answer a job applicant’s questions about health benefits because she didn’t know what the future would hold. “If you add that to potential furloughs, you’re really tearing at the fabric of the employer-employee relationship on Capitol Hill. This is the biggest change in a generation.”
In a survey of 1,400 Hill aides released last month by Fitch’s group, health care was the only aspect of compensation that employees listed as one of their top priorities for job satisfaction. Two-thirds—and 77 percent of older workers—said medical coverage was “very important,” compared with just 48 percent who said the same about their salary.
Congressional office budgets have already been cut up to 20 percent in the past two years. For one Democratic communications aide who recently got married, having a child while in his current job may be too much. “It’s one thing if I choose to work a job because I find it important, but it’s entirely another thing if you ask me to affect the health care of my children,” he says. “Twenty-year-olds should not be running the U.S. government, but when you pay $20,000 or $30,000 to many congressional aides, you just can’t afford to buy experience,” the aide said.
And therein lies the real problem. Over two decades, as the federal budget grew by more than one-third, Congress’s self-appropriated budget has flatlined, while staffing levels and compensation have fallen. The number of hearings Congress conducts annually has plummeted by almost two-thirds in the House and one-half in the Senate (through the 111th Congress), while independent investigatory offices are operating with deep staff reductions, and lawmakers have less in-house expertise to verify the information presented to them by outside organizations. “Congress has essentially lobotomized itself,” says Lorelei Kelly, a research fellow at the Open Technology Institute who is piloting a project called Smart Congress aimed at building the body’s knowledge base.
It’s easy to see how this happened. At a time when the American economy is suffering and the federal government is running huge deficits, what better way for lawmakers to show solidarity than by cutting their own budgets? Newt Gingrich pioneered the strategy, when he promised in the Contract With America to cut staff levels by one-third on the first day of the 103rd Congress in 1994. He made good on that promise, but he didn’t stop there, slashing the Congressional Research Service and what was then called the General Accounting Office by up to 40 percent—and entirely eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment. The sentiment lives on: In 2011, appropriators cut GAO’s budget by another $42 million, close to 10 percent.
Unsurprisingly, staffers seek lucrative work off the Hill. “Congress is basically outsourcing its ability to think to lobbyists and think tanks,” says Daniel Schuman, the policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who wrote a series of comprehensive reports on staff retention and congressional competency while at the Sunlight Foundation. Most at risk of jumping ship are the valuable senior staffers, who likely make too much money to qualify for subsidies on the exchanges. “They say, ‘You know what, I’ve had it. I’ve been working 70 hours a week. I can go somewhere else and have an easier life and get paid more money,’ ” Schuman says. Kelly warns that public service is becoming less a revolving door than an “escalator up”—“just a means to an end at a trade-association job.”
Vitter’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Vitter ally who is trying to sue the federal government over the Obamacare “exemption,” dismissed any worry about a brain drain. “It truthfully doesn’t concern me that much,” Johnson tells National Journal, explaining that he’s set aside money from his budget in anticipation of just such a change. What about other members who weren’t as prudent? “They should have been,” he says. And one way or another, Johnson vows to change the policy. “My message to fellow members is: Don’t think this issue is going away.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Daniel Schuman's name.