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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Senate Committee for Sale

The Senate is often referred to as the "higher body." It's a genteel place of grace and wisdom, with every member a Cicero. The House of Representatives -- the "People's House" -- is a frat house by comparison. Or maybe a daycare center. When Reps are jumping up and down and freaking out, Senators rise above the fray and deal with the problems of the day with dignity and cooler heads. In the Senate, decisions are made after cool deliberation, based on reason and...

Stacks of moneyPffft! I can't keep this up. It's fun for a while, but eventually you're laughing too hard to keep going. Yeah, there are a lot of thoughtful Senators who take their oath to the Constitution seriously, who believe that they have to work in the best interests of the people. But there are also a lot of whores who'll vote whichever way they're paid to. The best interests of the people be damned. Being a Senator is a pretty sweet gig, after all. The pay is good and you only have to run for reelection once every six years. In between, there's fundraising, but some have that all figured out. You can nickel and dime yourself to death with small donors and community organizations or you can go for the big score and save yourself a lot of time.

We can see this in the Democrats who voted against a public option on the Senate Finance Committee this week. The most liberal amendment offered by Chuck Schumer was defeated 15-8, with five Democrats defecting to vote against it. Of those five, all have received funding from the health industry -- to the tune of $19,219,860. That's a lot of fundraising dinners these guys get to skip.

The biggest recipient of all this lobbyist largesse is the committee's chairman, Max Baucus. Of that $19 mil., Max has received $7,734,102 -- roughly one third of that money. If you need an explanation of why everyone in Washington hates Baucus' bill, there you are. Republicans don't like it because it comes from the desk of a Democrat; their jerking knees compel them to oppose it by default. Democrats hate it because it's awful. The only people happy with it are Max Baucus and the health lobby.

Wendell Potter, a former Cigna insurance exec turned whistleblower, called Baucus' bill and "absolute gift" to the insurance industry, since it "would not provide affordable coverage... gives the industry too much latitude to charge higher premiums based on age and geographic location, fails to mandate employer coverage, and pushes consumers into plans with limited benefits."

After Baucus introduced his healthcare "reform" plan, insurance stocks rose. After the bought-and-paid-for Democrats on his committee shot down a public option, the same thing happened.

"Lobbying contributions appear to have the largest marginal impact on middle-of-the-road Democrats," writes statistician/blogger Nate Silver. "Liberal Democrats are likely to hold firm to the public option unless they receive a lot of remuneration from health care PACs. Conservative Democrats may not support the public option in the first place for ideological reasons, although money can certainly push them more firmly against it. But the impact on mainline Democrats appears to be quite large."

So, the middle-of-the-roaders -- the "centrists" -- are the most likely to be bought and paid for. The less partisan you are, the more for sale your votes are... Which kind of casts Baucus' months-long snipe hunt for bipartisan love (which ultimately failed) in a whole new light. Call it legal corruption.

"[A New York Times/CBS poll shows] Americans support the notion of a government administered health insurance plan by a margin of 65% to 26%," reports the good government site "According to the same poll, people who identify themselves as Democrats favor the public option by a margin of 81% to 12%. That's nearly 7 to 1 in favor of, yet the representatives of the Democrat party in the Senate Finance Committee only voted for the public option at a ratio of 8 to 5. Perhaps the most interesting number revealed by this poll is that Republican voters favor the public option 47% to 42%."

You know what that looks like to me? A bipartisan agreement -- it's just not in Washington. It also looks like a mandate. Yet, in that committee, a public option is hugely controversial and must be strangled in its cradle.

"So let’s get this straight," writes Joan Walsh for Salon, "Baucus admits the public option would ‘hold insurance companies’ feet to the fire,’ but he voted against it? Is there any clearer evidence that Baucus is in the pocket of the health insurance industry?"

You mean other than that $19 million in industry lobby money? Because, taken together, his statements, his votes, and his money make it pretty much inarguable; Max Baucus is owned.

But let's not let the other sellouts off the hook here. Joining Baucus in rejecting a public option were Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln ($4,190,592), North Dakota's Kent Conrad ($3,287,891), Bill Nelson of Florida ($$2,414,895), and Delaware's Tom Carper ($1,592,380). All were paid and all delivered -- not for their constituents, who favor a public option, but for their donors, who don't.

That may be legal, that may be the way Washington works, but it ain't democracy. For too many, the Senate is a genteel and august puppet show.


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