Americans who thought the GameStop saga represented an unseemly trading frenzy haven’t seen anything yet. The coming weeks will see a flurry of old-fashioned horse trading—some would call it corruption—in Washington, as Democrats attempt to pass a partisan “stimulus” bill.
Because defections from only a handful of House Democrats or a single Senate Democrat could nix the entire $1.9 trillion spending spree, lawmakers will have great incentives to demand wasteful pork in exchange for their votes.
Bipartisan History of Sordid Bargains
The party faced a similar dilemma a dozen years ago, when it needed all 60 Senate Democrats to support Obamacare. The bill the Senate passed on Christmas Eve 2009 included all manner of sweetheart deals reflecting senators’ leverage: Sen. Ben Nelson’s, D-Neb., “Cornhusker Kickback,” which permanently exempted Nebraska from paying for Medicaid expansion; “Gator Aid,” which lessened the effects of Medicare Advantage cuts on Florida, home to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; and the “Louisiana Purchase,” an increase in Louisiana’s federal Medicaid match made at the behest of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
After a public uproar, Congress nixed the first two earmarks. But even after their removal, Obamacare retained so many other parochial projects that the public needed a reading guide to find and understand them all. Harry Reid, D-Nev., then the Senate majority leader, not only didn’t criticize this vote-buying, he welcomed it, saying it “doesn’t speak well” of senators who didn’t trade their votes in exchange for home-state pork.
Eight years later, Republicans tried something similar in their own attempts at health-care legislation. The 2017 “repeal-and-replace” bill included multiple changes targeting Alaska, home of Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and a provision, dubbed the “Buffalo Bribe,” that several House Republicans from upstate New York insisted on to change that state’s Medicaid program. Ultimately, however, Murkowski rebuffed these legislative enticements. Her “No” vote helped sink the bill.
Bureaucrats’ Wide Authority
While the Obamacare and “repeal-and-replace” bills included various forms of “health care pork”—Medicare and Medicaid formula changes to benefit a particular state, area, or medical facility—this year’s “stimulus” blowout could result in a whole new level of horse-trading and corruption. The budget reconciliation procedures Democrats will use to ram their bill through Congress focus on financial matters, not policy directives, meaning the former will dominate at the expense of the latter.
For instance, Section 1005 of the 2010 reconciliation bill provided $1 billion to three federal departments “to carry out” Obamacare implementation. That’s it. No real directions or instructions from Congress, just a blank check for the Obama administration to spend $1 billion on whatever Obamacare projects it liked.
The legislation Democrats ultimately produce could well include many similar “slush funds,” and in amounts far greater than $1 billion. With federal bureaucrats empowered to distribute dollars from these slush funds however they like, they can do so in ways that promote leftism—working to keep control of the House and Senate by funding pet projects for vulnerable Democrats.
Earmarks with a Vengeance
Democrats have previously expressed their desire to bring earmarks back to Capitol Hill, with one chairman calling the return of these pork projects “absolutely critical” to enact Biden’s agenda. They claim earmarks’ return would only come with appropriate transparency and accountability.
But the reconciliation bill could well lead to bureaucrats funding projects in an opaque manner that benefits Democratic lawmakers’ parochial interests. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said with Obamacare, we will have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it—meaning which lawmakers’ pork projects won the Biden administration’s favor.
In case they forgot, the Obamacare debacle led to Democrats losing control of the House, plus the Senate seats formerly held by Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama. Democrats in Congress should bear that history in mind as they consider whether to auction their votes again.