‘Art of compromise’ taints health bill

Whether you think the health care bill passed by the Senate Thursday is the savior of our health care system or a national catastrophe, one thing is abundantly clear:

It wasn’t passed because of its policy prescriptions. It won approval only because hundreds of millions of dollars were doled out to a handful of states represented by a few key senators who withheld their support until their palms were suitably greased.

It was politics at its slimiest, and it’s sure to further erode Americans’ already abysmal level of respect for Congress.

The dealings make Mark Twain’s famous quip from the 19th century appear tragically true today: “There is no distinct native American criminal class except Congress.”

The most infamous of the congressional creeps last week was Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. He engineered a deal by which the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cost of new Medicaid recipients in Nebraska. He also won a provision to make certain insurance organizations — notably Mutual of Omaha in Nelson’s home state — exempt from a new tax included in the bill.

Nelson’s ostensible reason for withholding his support from the health care bill was that he didn’t like the way the legislation attempted to deal with potential public funding for abortions. But his abortion principles were abandoned like an unwanted Christmas sweater when the glimmer of gold for Nelson’s constituents was dangled before him.

As a result, taxpayers in Colorado and most other states will face additional long-term debt to cover Nebraska’s free ride on new Medicaid costs, even as our own state governments struggle to meet their rising Medicaid obligations.

Nelson is facing heat from other Nebraska politicians and some Cornhusker citizens, who have denounced his backroom dealings. But he was far from alone. Senators like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont all negotiated sweetheart deals for their constituents or favored groups — to ensure their “Yes” votes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cheerily declared there was nothing to worry about in all this. “That’s what legislation is all about — it’s the art of compromise.”

But the last-minute deals cut to win passage of this bill weren’t compromises. They amounted to paying political blackmail in exchange for votes. And they make it clear that senators wanting to bring big-bucks goodies to their states should play coy about their support for major legislation until the last minute. To their credit, neither of Colorado’s senators, Mark Udall or Michael Bennet, played that game.

Democrats also dismissed outrage over the deal-making by saying Republicans do the same thing.

We certainly wouldn’t argue that Republicans are as pure as the snow on Grand Mesa when it comes to trading votes for pork. But last week’s deal-making debacle was almost exclusively Democratic (Sanders is an independent).

That debacle will long taint the health care bill, whether it proves to be a success or a disaster. We hope when these deal-cutting senators face re-election, voters in those states will put integrity above pork-barrel presents delivered just before Christmas.


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