Friday, July 03, 2009

Grassley's Health Care Solution & Cities' Lobbyists

July 3, 2009, 2:15 p.m.

Sen. Grassley Suggests Gov't Health Insurance (and Jobs) for All
Cedar Rapids Has to Hire Lobbyists to Get Help from Cong. Loebsack

(brought to you by*)

Neither of those headings are literally true, but they're not all that far off the mark either.

Iowa's Senator Chuck Grassley got a little rattled at one of his Iowa "town meetings" the other day when pressed on the details of his own health insurance and why the questioner couldn't have equally good coverage. The Senator's final suggestion to his constituent was that he should just go work for the government.

Can't believe it? It's too delicious to be true? Watch for yourself:

See, Susan Crile, "Chuck Grassley: If You Want Good Health Insurance, Work For The Government," The Huffington Post, July 2, 2009.

Now the "public option" is one thing, and the proposals for "universal single-payer" (that most countries provide their citizens) is another, but for a Republican of Grassley's stature to suggest that the solution to America's health care problem is for every American to work for the government does seem a bit extreme.

In case you run into him and he's still confused about his own coverage you might want to refer him to the "Non-Postal Premium Rates for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program." Depending on the plan and coverage the monthly out-of-pocket for the Senator (or other federal employees) runs something between $84 and $300 a month. (The government pays two-thirds of the premium cost.)

Of course the salaries we pay our senators and members of Congress, and their health insurance benefits, are the least of it. (The pay is $174,000 a year; leaders get $193,400; after five years in office they're eligible for generous pensions.) See Robert Longley, "Salaries and Benefits of US Congress Members,"

When JFK was president the entire cost of the legislative branch was $192 million. The projections for 2008 were for $4.8 billion -- an increase twice the rate of population growth, and about three times the rate of inflation. Richard Rahn, "The Imperial Congress," Discovery Institute, Technology & Democracy Project, February 11, 2007.

For example, Legistorm lists 28 "past and present" staffers working for Loebsack -- and as a new Member that's a much smaller number than for those with seniority, who may also have access to the staff working for the committees on which they serve. Senators, of course, have multiples more. The staff payroll for Congressman Loebsack's office, October 1, 2007 through September 30, 2008, was $913,436. "Rep. David Loebsack," Legistorm.

Moreover, as that Web site says, "Note that the salary index for a given time period does not necessarily reflect exactly who is on staff at the present time. Also, aides for any relevant committees, leadership offices, campaign committees and leadership PACs will not be included here, nor do we have data for unpaid staff such as interns or people who are 'detailed' from the GAO, executive branch or private sector."

I have no way of knowing the full range of benefits beyond these or their cost to the taxpayers, such as the "franking privilege" (free postage), and possibly travel allowances, and housing allowances -- and of course the hospitality of lobbyists.

Rahn, whose piece is linked, above, suggests that the total cost for a Member of Congress is $3.1 million, and for a Senator, $9 million.

Why am I laying out all these numbers? It's not because I necessarily begrudge our federal elected officials their pay and perks.

It's because I question why, given Congress' $4.6 billion in resources, a city needs to go out and hire a lobbyist to represent its interests in Washington!

Although I can't find it online at the moment, Iowa Public Radio reported this morning on a conflict in Cedar Rapids over the City's paying a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to represent it -- something the City Manager wants to do. (IPR's latest postings in its online "Newsroom" don't reference the story.) So all I can link to is The Gazette's reporter, Adam Belz' report April 30 that, "The Cedar Rapids City Council . . . is preparing for a request for proposal process to hire a lobbyist beyond [July]." Adam Belz, "Supervisors Break With Federal Lobbyists," The Hot Beat, April 30, 2009.

Goodness knows, I'm aware of how complicated dealing with the federal government can be. But in the 21st Century that's a part of the job of a City Manager; and if he or she doesn't have the personal experience, knowledge or confidence then someone on their staff.

It is also the job of our elected officials to help our cities deal with the Washington bureaucracy. They are there, in Washington. They have staff who deal with federal agencies everyday on behalf of constituents. If they don't have a personal contact in the relevant agency they know how to go about getting information out of them anyway. They have access to the Congressional Reference Service. If they can't help one of the cities in their District who can they help?

Much of the work of lobbyists on behalf of their corporate clients is to make presentations to the elected officials and their staff members. But when a city has its own Member of Congress it shouldn't need a lobbyist to make that contact.

Moreover, these Washington lobbyists aren't cheap -- $10,000 a month is not at all uncommon. But just how much help are you going to get for, say, $150,000 a year from a firm that bills out its time at, say, $300-to-$1000 an hour and more?

Bear in mind, I'm not talking about local delegations going to Washington -- to call on Congressman Loebsack and agency personnel. That's another matter, and often quite effective (based on my experience as Maritime Administrator and FCC commissioner). It may be a junket for some; perhaps they could have stayed in a cheaper hotel and not flown first class. But the costs are nothing compared to the prices charged by Washington lobbying firms.

I can be persuaded I'm wrong -- on this or any other issue. But my instinct is that once you've paid the people whose job it is -- whether a corporate CEO, a university president, a Member of Congress, or a City Manager -- you shouldn't have to pay someone else to do their job.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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