By Rowan Scarborough
What was championed by Democrats a year ago as a high-minded endeavor to reform health care has instead descended into a grotesque piece of legislation larded with pork, payoffs, back room deals and huge tax increases, say Republicans and experts on Congress.
“We have former members of Congress in jail and a lobbyist in jail for this sort of behavior,” said David Williams, who has been tracking pork-barrel spending for 15 years for Citizens Against Government Waste. “People are really fed up with it.”
The close-door deal making is just getting revved up. House and Senate leaders will hold private negotiations next month to reconcile their bills. Envious of the deals Democratic senators extracted from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House members are sure to demand their share of pork favors in exchange for floor votes.
“The wonderful conference committee where a lot of bad things happen,” is how Williams described the upcoming process to HUMAN EVENTS. “We never see any good things happen in a conference committee. It’s always bad things. We’re just putting up the wood paneling getting ready for the January hurricane that is the conference committee because we just suspect it’s going to be a doozy.”
Reid, the bill’s behind-the-scenes architect, used Medicare and Medicaid payments like just another round of pork projects, called earmarks. He handed out a hundred million dollars here and a few hundred million dollars there to secure 60 votes needed for cloture to vote on his bill.
“It’s hard to ignore the billions of dollars this is a giveaway for,” Williams said. “On one hand, even a $100,000 earmark to get reelected has a huge corrupting influence on the process. But, oh my goodness, here are billions of dollars that were traded like monopoly money is just mind boggling.”
The Senate version, and its more than 2,000 pages, is so studded in special favors to various states that Washington watchdogs groups, such as Williams’ pork fighters, are still mining new gems a weeks after Reid wrote the $400 billion in tax increases and $2.5 trillion in spending over 10 years.
“Unfortunately, Congress is getting smarter,” Williams said. “It’s like when a cock roach builds up an immunity to bug spray. It figures out how to survive when it gets sprayed with that stuff. What congressmen do now is they will change a formula now for a state. So, it’s not the teapot museum. It’s not the ‘bridge to no where.’ But it’s still these spending issues that are driving people in this country insane. They are getting away from the traditional silly projects. There’s still pork in the appropriations bill. Don’t get me wrong. But this is kind of the new frontier in pork barrel politics.”
The magnitude of Reid’s wheeling-dealing became so immense as his bill passed Christmas Eve on a party-line vote that some senators abandoned polite debate.
“Democrats have truly hit the bottom on their reckless pursuit of a government takeover of health care,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. “The Democrat majority just voted to retain the culture of corruption in Congress. Just two years ago, Democrats bragged about draining the swamp, but now they’re endorsing political bribery. This is Washington at its worst.”
Over in the House, GOP leader John Boehner declared, “Senate Democrats have sunk to plenty of new lows to jam through this government takeover of health care, but putting their votes on the auction block tops them all.”
The Democrats’ legislative horse-trades are in addition to a whole pot of goodies President Obama handed out to doctors, hospitals, advocacy groups and drug makers to ensure they worked on behalf of a totally partisan bill.
Reid’s plan provides money to the uninsured many of whom do not want health coverage by raiding Medicare. It cuts a half-trillion dollars in payments to certain providers.
You would think the most prominent voice for seniors in Washington The Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons would be up in arms. But it is silent. Moreover, it actually supports Obama-care.
Why? Republicans say it’s because the bill will force more seniors to buy supplemental insurance. And AARP is a big provider of so-called “Medigap” plans, pulling in more than a half-billion dollars in 2008.
“Shame on AARP,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said on the Senate floor. “Take your AARP card, cut it in half and send it back. They’ve betrayed you.”
Among the Reid handouts, the most infamous are hundreds of millions of dollars on Medicaid payments for the votes of Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. The payments cover the state cost of Medicaid, which will go up under HarryCare. Other states will likely be forced to raise taxes to meet new enrollee demands.
Then we learned that Sen. Chris Dodd, who is in a tough reelection battle in Connecticut, received another big Reid favor: $100 million for a new hospital.
The deals have become known as the “Louisiana Purchase” and “Cornhusker Kickback.” To lump the vote-buying process under one banner, someone coined, “Cash for Cloture,” a reference to the Obama subsidy for car buyers.
Now, more deals are surfacing. Williams said his group will likely issue a report once it finishes combing through over 2,000 pages of taxes, mandates, government panels, earmarked projects and federal aid.
Other Reid deals:
• A tax break for Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company (Nelson).
• Federal money for ACORN, the left-wing activist group connected to phony voter registration lists (Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois).
• Medicaid payments of $600 million for Vermont. (Patrick Leahy).
• More than $10 billion for government health centers (Bernie Sanders of Vermont).
• Florida seniors get to keep extra Medicare benefits that the elderly in other states will lose (Bill Nelson).
• Higher Medicare payments for hospitals in North Dakota (Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad).
• Extend Medicare benefits to a small group of miners in Montana sickened by asbestos (Max Baucus).
AARP is not the only organization who stands to reap more revenue under ObamaCare. The White House enticed drug companies (Big Pharma) with all sorts of favors. In fact, the industry is go gaga over the House and Senate bills it is spending well over $100 million on media ads.
(Some of that money has flowed to two Chicago political/media companies founded by David Axelrod, Obama’s closest White House adviser. Axelrod sold his interest to partners, and continues to receive the $2 million buyout in yearly installments. He has an interest in his former firm staying afloat.)
John Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute is writing about one of the many favors the legislation gives drug firms. It has do with Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) and Health Savings Accounts (FSA). People can contribute pre-tax dollars to both and use the money to buy drugs. But under the pending bills, only prescription drugs not over-the-counter medicines, as is the case now can be bought with FSA or FSA money, Berlau told Human Events.
“I think this provision itself, in addition to the harm it does to consumers, is an example of egregious pork for Big Pharma,” Berlau said. “By taking away the tax advantages for over-the-counter drugs in FSAs and HSAs, but leaving them in there for prescription medicine, this law encourages folks to go to prescription drugs when they’re sick even if OCT drugs will do the trick — a huge gift to pharmaceutical firms that make expensive prescription drug that will raise health care cost by the billions over time.”
And for those who say HarryCare is simply good old fashion horse-trading, critics say the sheer magnitude of the voting buying for what was supposed to be largely a policy bill puts it in class by itself. Berlau said, for example, that Congress has never agreed to pay a state’s Medicaid bill in perpetuity, as it did for Sen. Ben Nelson.
Robert E. Moffit, a health care analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said there is an overriding issue that makes HarryCare pork unique.
Reid is handing out money and projects in a bill that affects 300 million Americans, as opposed to a yearly appropriations bill that hands out local bridge and highway projects. Thus, giving various states a special break on paying for Medicaid, means taxpayers elsewhere will have to make up the difference.
“I cannot recall a time where we had anything like this ever happen,” said Moffit, a longtime Washington hand. “This transaction is being done to affected 300 million Americans. In other words, the project back home just doesn’t affect the people back home. It’s to further an agenda that affects every body in every state of the union.”
To lawmakers, he said, “what’s happening back home, I really don’t care that they don’t like what I’m doing. I’m going to do it anyway. And in order to get it done, they are doing this horse-trading, trading away literally hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars in these payoffs to Louisiana and Nebraska and other states in broad day light. It’s never been so blatant before for a lot of people and that’s why people are referring to this as legalized corruption and bribery in daylight.”
Moffit said the dealing may produce a backlash. Nelson’s poll numbers have plummeted in Nebraska, according to a Rasmussen survey.
“The sense of fair play and the sensibilities of ordinary Americans are deeply offended by all this,” he said.