(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration is not ready to tell Congress what cost-cutting measures it will take to pay for extending federal employee benefits to same-sex couples.
The legislation that provides health care, long-term care, family and medical leave and federal retirement benefit passed the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and is awaiting approval on the Senate floor.
The legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman and ranking member respectively of the committee. Lieberman has expressed reluctance about bringing the bill to the floor if it adds to the federal deficit.
The administration asserted that it could be paid for by cuts – or “offsets” in other areas of the budget.
But not having the estimate is holding up the bill’s passage, Collins said.
“It’s been five months since that hearing and we’re still waiting for the offset, which, you should understand, as a strong supporter of the bill, it’s preventing the bill from being taken up on the Senate floor until we identify the process,” Collins said on March 24 during a Senate hearing. “So where are we on that issue?
John Berry, director of the administration’s Office of Policy Management, answered her that the OPM “identified a very good offset” but said he was “loath” to make it public for fear that someone else would seek another way to spend the money.
He said when the bill moves to the Senate floor, the administration would make the offset estimate public.
The OPM estimated last October that same-sex benefits would cost $633 million over the next 10 years for the Senate bill.
However, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the House version would cost $596 million in direct spending and increase discretionary spending by $302 million over the next decade.
During the March 24 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Collins sought to understand what the holdup was. She brought up his pledge for an offset estimate in October.
She quoted Berry as saying, “I think we will be able to identify efficiencies to fully offset over the term of the administration if you need a commitment or promise to that effect I’m happy to deliver it.”
Berry responded with another pledge.
“Let me make this iron clad promise to you. We have an offset that is going through the clearance process with Office of Management and Budget currently,” Berry said.
“We are awaiting the committee to wrap up its report so that we can get CBO scoring to know exactly – so that we can guarantee that the offset that we give you equal the CBO cost estimate. Once we know that for exact, then I can meet our word to you,” Berry added.
“We have identified I think a very good offset,” said Berry, who went on to invoke his previous role as director of the National Zoo in Washington.
“As you know, especially in these times, offsets have become a very precious commodity,” Berry told the Appropriations committee.
“I feel like having a good offset is like going into the lion and tiger house with a plate full of meat. You’ve got a lot of attention. I’m sort of loath to put that offset out there with the fear – quite frankly – that a larger tiger might take it away for another purpose,” Berry added.
“So my promise to you would be as soon as the committee is ready to go to the floor, and we have that CBO scoring,” Berry said.
The “blatantly coy” response was unusual in providing a cost estimate to a Senate panel, said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Center, which opposes the bill.
“It was a comical, but sad window into the bureaucratic game playing and contrary to the administration’s promise of openness and transparency,” Sprigg told CNSNews.com.
While he credits senators with not wanting the bill to add to the deficit, he still believes they are relying too heavily on the administration for a cost estimate.
“The sponsors of the bill do not know where the money is going to come from,” Sprigg said. “While I criticize Mr. Berry for not being more forthcoming, I also have to criticize Sen. Lieberman and Collins for not taking their share of responsibility for how this bill will be paid for.”
At the October Homeland Security committee hearing, Berry testified that the estimated cost in 2010 would be about $56 million, about two-tenths of a percent of how much employee health insurance costs the entire federal government.
In June 2009, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum extending some benefits to homosexual partners of federal employees.
But, benefits such as health care and life insurance –can only be extended to domestic partners by an act of Congress. Also, a presidential order can be overturned by a succeeding administration. It is far more difficult to overturn an act of Congress.
During the hearing, Collins said she supported the legislation since the federal government must compete against the private sector for top employees.
She said these are “the same kinds of benefits that are very prevalent in the Fortune 500 benefits structure and those are competing with by the way.”
But Sprigg said this proposal clashes with the Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, that says no state will be required to recognize a homosexual marriage from another state.
“This is contradictory to the spirit of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which says you are not supposed to treat same-sex relationships as equal to marriage,” Sprigg said. “The passage of this would be a slippery slope to changing the definition of our most important institution.”