For Americans still struggling in a tough economy Rep. Phil Gingrey's (R-Ga.) recent comments about lobbyists and his own six-figure salary may, on the surface, seem odd, unfair and patently insensitive. But providing some context actually shows that his proclamations were possibly rooted in sarcasm and an effort to ensure Congress is not afforded special rights and privileges.
At the least, the media's treatment of his alleged statements hasn't been the fairest.
"[Congressional staffers] may be 33 years old now and not making a lot of money," he purportedly said, according to an account published by National Review. "But in a few years they can just go to K Street and make 500,000 a year. Meanwhile I’m stuck here making $172,000 a year."
Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., arrives for a closed-door briefing by national security officials on the situation in Syria, at the Capitol, in Washington, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Credit: AP
If taken literally, the assumption would be that Gingrey was saying "woe is me" about his own salary. But in a phone interview with National Review, the congressman said that while he did not recall his exact wording, he was trying to convey a specific point: Congressmen and women shouldn't be given special rights that elevate them above the American public.
"I was engaged in a dialogue with some members of our conference who truly believe that Congress should get special treatment," he told the outlet. "And some also believe that staff members should get special treatment. I happen not to believe that."
The comments were made at a closed-door meeting about a Republican proposal to exempt lawmakers and their staffers from a new law that would require them to take part in health care exchanges, reports the Washington Post. The National Review -- one of the only outlets to fully report the story's many details -- has more about the context of the discussion:
At issue is a requirement in the law that congressional staffers purchase their health insurance in the exchange markets. The Office of Personnel Management recently ruled that the federal government can continue providing a subsidy to use in the exchange markets, which critics such as Senator David Vitter have railed against as a special exemption from the law for Congress.
But at a closed-door conference meeting this morning in the Capitol basement as they discussed a proposal to reverse the ruling, some lawmakers were more concerned about their own well-being.
As these leaders debated how the proposal to reverse the ruling would impact their personal finances, some congressmen expressed their concern. But when it came to Gingrey, who has sought an end to the subsidy and introduced a "No Special Treatment for Congress Act," he wasn't willing to simply endorse special treatment for anyone serving in Congress.
And that's when he apparently made the contentious comment about salaries.
In this March 27, 2013 file photo Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., announces his bid for the U.S. Senate at a news conference in Atlanta. Credit: AP
Not all media outlets, though, are reporting all of the story's intricate details. The Washington Post, for instance, didn't provide as much context, seemingly clumping the Gingrey with other congressmen who were worried about the personal toll that the law would have. A separate ABC News report did provide a bit more context, but it didn't explain the element surrounding special rights for Congress.
In an e-mail to TheBlaze, the congressman's press secretary Jen Talaber explained what she said was the intent:
"The congressman was standing up in the Republican conference arguing that Members of Congress should not be getting special treatment. Sen. Vitter called and asked him to speak on half of his proposal to overturn the Obamacare exemption for Members of Congress and their staffs. Rep. Gingrey offered his own legislation reversing the OPM rule, the No Special Treatment for Congress Act. He also offered this amendment back in 2009 during the Obamacare markup.
The question is why Members of Congress are insisting they receive special treatment, not what the congressman said during debate over the issue."
So, it seems the comment could have been made in a sarcastic tone, although some will argue that the quip about salaries and being stuck at $172,000 was inappropriate.
If anything, one potential criticism might be that Gingrey has little compassion for some staffers who currently make much less than he does -- and some could argue that he's assuming there's a bigger payout in store than there really is for some of these congressional employees. Two staffers who heard the comments brought them to National Review out of frustration for this very reason.
In the end, though, not reporting the reason these comments were made -- the congressman's quest to crack down on special treatment among his peers -- poses a problem and at minimum creates confusion.