The recent report that Republican Michigan Representative Nick Smith was offered support for his son’s Congressional campaign if he would vote in favor of the Medicare bill reminds me of just how hard the Republicans have to work to get their radical bills through Congress despite being in the majority. In fact, on several critical votes this year, the only way they could win was to insure their own wavering members they would be exempt from the drastic changes that their legislation would bring about.
Because Democrats are sticking together in opposing many Republican initiatives, Republican leaders are bending the rules more than usual to win victories. Democrats, who represent more than 140 million citizens, have been virtually shut out of the lawmaking process.
The Washington Post reported earlier this year that Republican Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Don Young of Alaska indicated that he would only support an earlier version of the FAA reauthorization bill that called for privatization of air traffic controllers if the tower near his apartment in Anchorage was not included in the list of towers to be privatized. Knowing that the Anchorage tower will not be manned by the low-bid contractor while towers in their own districts will be probably gives little comfort to other members of Congress.
The hotly contested House bill to reauthorize the Head Start program in July is another case in point. Although many Republicans harbor a dislike of the Great Society remnant, they have popular Head Start programs in their own districts and are hesitant to condemn its participants. Under the guise of reforming Head Start, the Republican bill includes a pilot program in which federal quality standards and local control of the program would be removed. Instead, Head Start money and control would be given to the governor.
Republican leaders confronted skeptical members when the Head Start bill reached the House floor, and Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader DeLay realized a key component of their and President Bush’s legislative agenda faced possible defeat. They enlisted Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who met with a number of undecided lawmakers. Thompson had trouble convincing several Kentucky Republicans who had said they would not vote for the bill. The Kentucky Head Start Association voiced its concern. To secure their votes, Thompson and Education and Workforce Committee chairman John Boehner assured the lawmakers that however well-intentioned the experiment, Kentucky would not be one of the states chosen as a testing-ground, an assurance the lawmakers proudly communicated to their Head Start association and on their websites.
The controversial Head Start bill then passed the House by a single vote.
Similarly, during the bitter Senate debate over the Medicare prescription drug bill, a number of Republican senators expressed reservations about the key provision to subsidize private health plans to compete with traditional Medicare. The experiment, known as “premium support,” elicited bitter objections from Democrats and from many seniors’ groups who feared the elderly would be forced into HMOs and denied the ability to see their personal physicians.
Desperate to secure the votes needed to kill a Democratic filibuster that could tie up the controversial bill, Republicans asked their vacillating members what they needed to waive application of the Budget Act to the $400 billion bill. Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffee, who had earlier voted with Senate Democrats against cutting off Senate debate, offered his price: an assurance that the controversial “premium support” provision would not apply in his home state. “I’m not selling my vote,” Chafee weakly explained: “I had concerns to begin with,” which does not explain his willingness to impose the radical change on other senators’ constituents.
Of course, no one was accusing Chafee of being so crass as to sell his votes in exchange for a guarantee his constituents would not serve as legislative guinea pigs. But his comment does recall a statement by another legislator that although his vote could not be bought, it could be rented.
What is one to make of politicians who embrace radical changes as important reforms as long as they win exemptions for their own constituents?