Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Memory Hole: Medicare Part D

Ah, the hand-wringing over the “sweetheart deals” which brokered the healthcare bill into being. I’m still playing the world’s tiniest violin for Republicans.

I have no idea if this is “how it’s normally done” as I don’t work in D.C. But I did have a nagging little memory in the back of my head about some shenanigans Tennessee’s own Bill Frist, then Senate Majority Leader, fenagled to bring about the unfunded, politcally-motivated, fiscally irresponsible Medicare Part D expansion back in 2003 (Note: I'm remembering some shenangans in the Senate but the link is clearly about the House bill). After a few attempts my Google-fu hit pay dirt:
Recall the situation in 2003. The Bush administration was already projecting the largest deficit in American history--$475 billion in fiscal year 2004, according to the July 2003 mid-session budget review. But a big election was coming up that Bush and his party were desperately fearful of losing. So they decided to win it by buying the votes of America's seniors by giving them an expensive new program to pay for their prescription drugs.

Recall, too, that Medicare was already broke in every meaningful sense of the term. According to the 2003 Medicare trustees report, spending for Medicare was projected to rise much more rapidly than the payroll tax as the baby boomers retired. Consequently, the rational thing for Congress to do would have been to find ways of cutting its costs. Instead, Republicans voted to vastly increase them--and the federal deficit--by $395 billion between 2004 and 2013.

Okay, that’s all preamble. Now we get to the heart of the matter:

What followed was one of the most extraordinary events in congressional history. The vote was kept open for almost three hours while the House Republican leadership brought massive pressure to bear on the handful of principled Republicans who had the nerve to put country ahead of party. The leadership even froze the C-SPAN cameras so that no one outside the House chamber could see what was going on.

Among those congressmen strenuously pressed to change their vote was Nick Smith, R-Mich., who later charged that several members of Congress attempted to virtually bribe him, by promising to ensure that his son got his seat when he retired if he voted for the drug bill. One of those members, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was later admonished by the House Ethics Committee for going over the line in his efforts regarding Smith.

Holy WTF? I mean, at least offering Medicaid funding for Nebraska and Louisiana helps, you know, Nebraskans and Louisianans. “Ensuring” the son of a sitting Senator his seat when he retires (how do you even do that? Really?) is completely beyond the pale.

Eventually, the arm-twisting got three Republicans to switch their votes from nay to yea: Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, Butch Otter of Idaho and Trent Franks of Arizona. Three Democrats also switched from nay to yea and two Republicans switched from yea to nay, for a final vote of 220 to 215. In the end, only 25 Republicans voted against the budget-busting drug bill. (All but 16 Democrats voted no.)

Wonder if there were any “sweeteners” to get those folks to change their votes--which, by the way, happened at 3 a.m. Ya think?