Christmas Eve Vote on Obamacare Showed Washington Still Has Shame

A decade ago this morning, 60 Senate Democrats cast their final votes approving the legislation that became Obamacare. The bill took a circuitous route to enactment after Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the Massachusetts Senate contest, which occurred a few weeks after the Senate vote, in January 2010.

Brown’s election meant Republicans gained a 41st Senate seat, giving them the necessary votes to filibuster a House-Senate conference report on Obamacare. Because Democrats lacked the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, they eventually agreed to a process amending certain budgetary and fiscal elements of the Senate bill through the reconciliation process on a 51-vote threshold.

The grubby process leading up to Obamacare’s enactment, full of parochial politics and special interest pork, cost Democrats politically. But many Americans do not realize that such machinations occur all the time in Washington—indeed, occurred just last week. When one party participates in a corrupt process, it becomes a scandal; when both parties partake, few outside the Beltway bother to notice.

Backroom Deals

The process among Democrats leading up to the final health vote resembled an open market, with each Senator making “asks” of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid needed all 60 Democrats to vote for Obamacare to break a Republican filibuster, and the parochial provisions included in the legislation showed the lengths he would go to enact it:

Cornhusker Kickback:” The most notorious of the backroom deals came after Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) requested a 100 percent Medicaid match rate for his home state of Nebraska. The final manager’s amendment introduced by Reid included this earmark—Nebraska would have its entire costs of Medicaid expansion paid for by the federal government forever. But the blowback from constituents and the press became so great that Nelson asked to have the provision removed; the reconciliation measure enacted in March 2010 gave Nebraska the same treatment as all other states.

Gator Aid:” This provision, inserted at the behest of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and later removed in the reconciliation bill, sought to exempt Florida seniors from much of the effects of the law’s Medicare Advantage cuts.

Louisiana Purchase:” This provision, included due to a request from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), adjusted the state’s Medicaid matching formula. Landrieu publicly defended the provision—which she said reflected the state’s circumstances after Hurricane Katrina—and it remained in law for several years, but was eventually phased out in legislation enacted February 2012.

While these three provisions captivated the public’s attention, other earmarks and pork provisions abounded inside Obamacare too—a Medicaid funding provision that helped Massachusetts; exemptions from the insurer tax for two Blue Cross carriers; a $100 million earmark for a Connecticut hospital, and health benefits for miners in Libby, Montana, courtesy of then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

Not only did senators try to keep these corrupt deals in the legislation—notwithstanding the public outrage they engendered—but Reid defended both the earmarks and the horse-trading process that led to their inclusion:

I don’t know if there’s a senator who doesn’t have something in this bill that’s important to them. And if they don’t have something in it that’s important to them, then it doesn’t speak well for them.

It was a far cry from Barack Obama’s 2008 (broken) campaign promise to have all his health care negotiations televised on C-SPAN, “so we will know who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.” And it looked like Democrats didn’t really believe in the merits of the underlying legislation, but instead voted to restructure nearly one-fifth of the American economy because they got some comparatively minor pork project for their district back home.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 elections, and political scientists have attributed much of the loss to the impact of the Obamacare vote. One study found that Obamacare cost Democrats 6 percentage points of support in the 2010 midterm elections, and at least 13 seats in Congress.

But did the rebuke Democrats received for their behavior prompt them to change their ways? Only to the extent that, when they want to ram through a massive piece of legislation no one has bothered to read, they include Republicans in the taxpayer-funded largesse.

Consider last week’s $1.4 trillion spending package: Two bills totaling more than 2,300 pages, which lawmakers introduced on Monday and voted on in the House 24 hours later. Democrats wanted to repeal one set of Obamacare taxes—and in exchange, they agreed to repeal another set of taxes that Republicans (and their K Street lobbying friends) wanted gone. The Obamacare taxes went away, but the Obamacare spending remained, thus increasing the deficit by nearly $400 billion.

And both sides agreed to increase spending in defense and non-defense categories alike. Therein lies the true definition of bipartisanship in Washington: An agreement in which both sides get what they want—courtesy of taxpayers in the next generation, who get stuck with the bill.

It remains a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the nation’s capital that the Obamacare debacle remains an anomaly—the one time when the glare of the spotlight so seared Members seeking pork projects that they dared consider forsaking their ill-gotten gains. To paraphrase the axiom about casinos, in Washington, The Swamp (almost) always wins.