Dear Sen. Landrieu

"Dear Sen. Landrieu" Continued...

Issue: "2009 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 19, 2009

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

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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