The multimillion-dollar deals cut with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and others
to win the 60 votes needed for the historic health care reform bill
gave President Barack Obama the margin he needed to fulfill a central
campaign promise — but may also have upped the ante for future
presidential horse trading.
With the bill hanging in the balance, Nelson won a provision exempting
his state from paying the usual share of costs for new Medicaid
patients. The deal critics have dubbed the Cornhusker Kickback is
expected to cost the federal government $100 million over 10 years.
Before a close vote last month, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) won an even
larger break for her state — an estimated $300 million in extra federal
spending, in a move opponents derided as the Louisiana Purchase.
Some critics branded the special deals as functionally equivalent to
the kind of earmarks Obama crusaded against as a senator — and a
quantum leap from eleventh-hour deals Obama’s predecessors have cut.
After Nelson and Landrieu, what will key congressional swing votes want from future White Houses?
“It’s a much bigger deal, a much larger piece of legislation than
half-a-million dollars for a peanut museum in North Carolina,” said
Thomas Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste. “We’re now talking
about programs worth hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. ...
Sooner or later, other members are going to be saying: Why didn’t I
think of this?”
“Once people see a leader willing to take these kinds of deals, people
have a tendency to withhold their votes until they get a similar deal.
... If you hold out, you, too, can be Ben Nelson, perhaps,” said Diana
Evans, a Trinity College political science professor who studies the
greasing done to pass legislation.
Obama is hardly the first president to try to grease the skids for
vote-deprived legislation — but past presidential financial incentives
seem fairly tame in comparison.
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When President Bill Clinton needed to get his tax-raising and
deficit-reducing budget bill through the House in 1993, the vote margin
was peanuts — literally. House members boasted that they had
essentially traded their votes for measures to protect the U.S. peanut
industry from Chinese competition.
“I did my shopping early,” then-Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.) said.
Clinton cut similar deals the same year to win ratification of the
North American Free Trade Agreement. In what critics dubbed the NAFTA
bazaar, aides practically invited lawmakers to set a legislative price
for their votes. “The store is open as far as the White House is
concerned,” one administration official told The Associated Press.
Clinton reportedly won the vote of then-Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) by
agreeing to support $1.2 billion in maritime subsidies, about $50
million of which went to a troubled shipyard in Studds’s district. Rep.
Bill Sarpalius (D-Texas) tied his vote to a pledge to build a new
federal plutonium lab, which was never built.
While Clinton compromised on peanuts, President George W. Bush caved on
socks during the 2005 fight to ratify the Central American Free Trade
Agreement. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) agreed to vote for the trade
pact after winning a deal to protect his district’s status as the U.S.
sock manufacturing capital. CAFTA passed in a 217-215 squeaker.
Brown University political science professor James Morone said Obama
was wise to bless wheeling and dealing, even though it may go against
the good-government impulses he showed when he tried to rein in
earmarks in the Senate.
“I am thrilled that Obama is not Jimmy Carter,” Morone said. “A
president who would have said to Ben Nelson, ‘No, you can’t have that,’
and lost the whole shooting match without it, would have been a fool. I
say thank heaven for the Chicago politics upbringing President Obama
But Morone also warned that same Chicago style can turn off voters. “I
can’t think of a bill where you had this much visible horse trading,
except for budget bills. It was so visible, so tawdry. ... Now you’ve
got, essentially, people scornful of the filibuster,” Morone said.
“Each step brings us closer to pulling the trigger on the nuclear
option. Both sides of the political spectrum could now go to the public
saying this isn’t working. ... I think that congressional rule is in
its last days.”
Jake Sherman contributed to this report.