Honorable Mary Landrieu
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
December 19, 2009
Dear Sen. Landrieu:
On behalf of Capitol Hill reporters weary from inexhaustible healthcare debates that have consumed two recent Saturdays, I'd like to apologize for initial published reports that you had secured only $100 million in federal funds for Louisiana in exchange for your support. I am not trying to be defensive, but in the midst of debates over trillion-dollar healthcare fixes, sometimes the numbers begin to blur.
Thanks for giving a speech on the Senate floor to set the record straight. When you declared, "I am not going to be defensive about asking for help in this situation. It is not a $100 million fix, it is a nearly $300 million fix," you made our job easier: No wonder you cast one of the 60 votes needed to keep alive Majority Leader Harry Reid's 2,074-page bill.
In designating that amount, the bill writers went to great lengths-two pages worth-to bury your deal, avoiding the word "Louisiana" by describing in detail a place that could be identified as your state only by above-average geography students ("certain state recovering from a major disaster," etc.). Now you cleared that up for the rest of us.
Since you were one of the last Democratic holdouts in what ended as a no-room-for-error, 60-39 margin on the vote to begin the healthcare debate, other wavering moderates are probably wondering where their states' funds are. But the pre--Thanksgiving Day vote was just the first of many. Your colleagues should know there is plenty of time to add their own pork to the bill.
As you have already figured out with your $300 million in specially designated Medicaid funds, this bill represents the mother of all legislative leverage opportunities for lawmakers who believe they must uphold the long-standing congressional tradition of bringing home the federal bacon. Clearly Sen. Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Barack Obama have invested too much of their own political capital on healthcare reform to allow failure.
Moderate Democrats are understandably a little nervous considering the latest Rasmussen poll showing that more than half of the country opposes the proposed legislation, and only 17 percent believe the CBO projections that the Senate bill will lower the deficit. The moderates will probably come to you for advice on how to pull off voting for healthcare, either boldly declaring their incentives as you have done or having them tucked away in some other bill. It's a good time to remind them of the past dollars grabbed for their states:
Sen. Ben Nelson for Nebraska, who joined you as one of the last three holdouts on the vote, last year secured $866,000 in agriculture appropriations to help with fly control in Lincoln. Political scientist John Hibbing at the University of Nebraska believes that the state would applaud Sen. Nelson if he can secure language in the Senate bill explicitly excluding federal funding of abortion. "But we are a conservative state, suspicious of government intrusion into new areas, " Hibbing hastened to add. "I'm not sure there is anything that will buy Nebraska."
Sen. Byron Dorgan, your colleague from North Dakota, faces a tough 2010 reelection effort in a state that preferred Republican John McCain for president last year. Last year he got $3 million appropriated to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks to help make NASA satellite images more accessible to the public.
With bipartisanship a 2009 buzzword, you should not forget the two Republican senators most likely to support the final bill: Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. This is good news for that state's lobster industry. The pair landed $150,000 for lobster research last year and $100,000 for the state's lobster foundation. Also, Maine produces the majority of the nation's low-bush blueberries, and last year Snowe and Collins got $173,000 in federal cash for blueberry research. Supporting blueberries is a natural fit for a healthcare bill; after all, blueberries are "heart healthy."
Granted your colleagues probably don't need advice on how to win a feeding spot at the federal trough. Congressional lawmakers last year secured 10,160 earmarks worth $19.6 billion. (Just don't tell the CBO about the potential cost of add-ons to the price of healthcare reform.) Since the bill comes with 18 new tax increases totaling $150 billion in new annual federal revenue, it seems fair to reward the states whose senators vote for healthcare overhaul.
Take Arkansas. Blanche Lincoln was the last senator to announce her vote to move forward with the health bill. That state also went for McCain in 2008 and pundits predict Lincoln's seat will go Republican in 2010.
John Vest is from Arkansas-Siloam Springs to be exact. Vest was more than happy to take a break from his recent Thanksgiving holiday to tell me what sweeteners Lincoln could add to healthcare so more Razorbacks won't forget about her next November. Arkansas schools really need the money, he suggested. But the 61-year-old is skeptical about any federal dollars. He spent the last four decades running his own air duct and carpet cleaning business, and he's proud of the fact that he has stayed out of debt since turning 35. In fact, he wishes Washington would follow his lead: "That money to win people over comes from somewhere and has to come from somebody," he told me. "People think they can get something for nothing. But some poor soul always has to pay it back."
In truth, it seems that many of your colleagues, during the expected behind-the-scenes vote-counting, will ask for the same thing you did: more money for their state's Medicaid funds. Everyone seems worried that the bill's creation of new subsidies to help even some middle-income earners pay for insurance will lead to unfunded federal mandates that could cripple already cash-strapped states. The bill raises the baseline for qualifying for healthcare assistance from 100 percent to 130 percent of the poverty level, and experts predict that 15 million of the 31 million people expected to gain coverage will fall under state Medicaid expenditures. That entitlement expansion has even Democratic governors worried: Tennessee's Gov. Phil Bredesen says the bill will increase his state's spending by $735 million over the next five years.
"For the Congress to also send along a mandatory bill for three-quarters of a billion dollars for the health reform they've designed is very difficult," Bredesen warned in a recent letter to the Tennessee congressional delegation. "These are hard dollars-we can't borrow them."
Maybe other governors have written similar letters, and their congressional lawmakers are taking them as marching orders to finesse their own Medicaid fix.
Reid himself had put a similar fix for his own state of Nevada in early drafts of the bill, requiring the federal government to pay 100 percent of the new costs imposed on his home state by his reform plan. Leaving no increase in spending from Nevada state funds is probably a good idea for Reid since he is currently behind in polls for his own reelection bid next year.
Since this debate is supposed to last most of the month, there will be plenty of time for senators to coax out of leadership what they want in exchange for their votes. Already the bill's first proposed amendment to increase insurance benefits for women is expected to add $940 million to its cost.
As the deal making commences and your leaders try to hold together the 60 votes, congressional reporters have one request: Could you please encourage your colleagues to be as open as you have been about the details? Ask them to go on the Senate floor and tell us what they got. As you declared in your floor speech, "I am proud to have asked for it. I am proud to have fought for it. I will continue to."
Very few of your colleagues are as willing to go public with the specifics of one of the many backroom deals that seem to be the lifeblood of American politics. But such transparency would save us reporters from having to read the 2,074-page bill-and its successors-line by line, and with a de-coder. This would go a long way in backing Reid's assertion that "we will do this work transparently."
With the Senate leadership in the giving spirit, that would be a great Christmas present.
Edward Lee Pitts
Reporter, WORLD Magazine