Long History of Vote-Trading on Capitol Hill

Thursday, 24 Dec 2009 09:39 AM

By Stephen Dinam

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But David O. Stewart, author of "Impeached," a book looking at the Johnson trial, says it's more likely the president owed his survival to payments made by his allies' $150,000 "acquittal fund" and to the patronage jobs he doled out after the vote, all but turning over to Ross some appointments in Kansas and the Colorado and New Mexico territories.

Vote-trading has a long, inglorious history in Congress, and presidents and party leaders alike have played the role of Monty Hall, the original host of TV's "Let's Make a Deal."

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In recent days that's included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who bargained wherever he could to gain the 60 votes needed to pass his version of health care reform.

A final vote occurred Thursday morning, and the bill passed. On Wednesday, Democrats turned back several challenges, including rejecting two claims that the bill is so broad it violates the Constitution.

Democrats also turned back an effort to add a new rule preventing senators from trading votes in exchange for earmarked spending, voting 53-46 against a rule that just two years ago had passed 98-0. Even Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, who co-sponsored the rule in 2007, voted against it this time.

Senators' change-of-heart may have come based on the realization they never would have gotten this far on health care without the deals Mr. Reid struck.

Behind door No. 1 was Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska's bargain to exempt his state from having to pay for expanded Medicaid costs under the bill. Door No. 2 held $100 million to help Louisiana pay Medicaid costs, which secured Sen. Mary L. Landrieu's vote. Door No. 3 offered extra Medicaid help for Vermont, which preserved the support of Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. And Door No. 4 included protections for Medicare Advantage customers in three states, even as customers in other states face cuts.

It's in the eye of the beholder, though, whether those deals are more or less altruistic than the days of old.

"That's not that different than the patronage jobs; it's just a different kind of trophy to bring home," Mr. Stewart said. "In the 1860s, we didn't have so many massive government programs you could get pieces of."

Still, Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said there is a difference. In the past, folks traded votes in exchange for specific goodies for themselves or their state: a pet project, say. But, Mr. Gregg said, in this bill, senators bargained for policy changes that actually exempt their states from part of the law they are being asked to support.

"There's nothing like this," said Mr. Gregg, looking back on his quarter-century in Congress. "It balkanizes the country."

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said he expects Democrats will hear during their winter break from their constituents angry at the deals.

He pointed to several Democrats who have had to denounce the deals, including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who took to the Senate floor Monday to denounce the bargaining.

Mr. Reid, though, said the trading is no different than what happens with the thousands of earmarks in the dozen annual spending bills.

He said senators should be embarrassed if they weren't able to carve out exemptions.

"There's 100 senators here, and I don't know if there is a senator that doesn't have something in this bill that was important to them," he said. "And if they don't have something in it important to them then, it doesn't speak well of them."

The White House has also given the deals a pass, with press secretary Robert Gibbs saying it has long been part of legislating.

Asked how that squared with Mr. Obama's pledge to do things differently, Mr. Gibbs said the end result is what matters.

"Well, I think one of the things that's going to be done differently is, we're going to have health care reform in this country," he said. "The president thinks that's an enormously good thing for the American people."

Deal-making has landed some members of Congress in jail, and has earned others admonishment and ridicule.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was admonished for appearing to trade his political endorsement of a congressman's son in exchange for the member's support for the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug bill.

And in the 1990s, late-night comics joked that President Clinton won votes by offering rides on Air Force One.

Not all of the deals struck on health care reform have clear-cut winners. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, inserted a provision to spend $100 million on a university hospital. He hopes the money goes to the University of Connecticut, but said he wrote the language so that another state could win the money if it has a better proposal.

History suggests dealmakers should beware.

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, studied the deals Mr. Clinton cut in 1993 to secure passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement, and found that most went unfulfilled.

Opponents of NAFTA were brutal in criticizing Mr. Clinton for offering those, including then-Rep. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, who was the only congressman to attend a press conference with consumer advocate Ralph Nader blasting the president for horse-trading.

He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper he wanted to "shame" members into rejecting the deals.

"Gov. Clinton campaigned for change. All of us campaigned against business as usual," Mr. Brown said. "Unfortunately, the last two weeks of wheeling and dealing in Congress has shown pork-barrel politics at its worst."

Mr. Brown is now a senator who supports the health care reform bill, and has changed his tune on deals.

He told PBS' "News Hour" program this week he didn't like the bargaining that forced Mr. Reid to drop abortion coverage or the government-sponsored public option from the bill, but said "the deals notwithstanding, this bill is good for the country in so many ways."

So far in the health care reform debate, there have been no allegations of senators trading votes for personal gain - which puts them ahead of their predecessor Ross and many other colleagues.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, bristles at vote-dealing. "I was always appalled by it when I saw it going on or knew it was going on," he said, adding there were times when other members "were so dense about it, they would brag about it in the cloakroom."

One congressman traded a vote for an invite to the next state dinner at the White House, Mr. Armey said.

Mr. Armey said one reason vote-trading happens is party leaders in Congress often come from the ranks of the Appropriations Committee, where trading is a way of life.

The House has a rule banning members from trading their votes in exchange for getting pork-barrel spending projects, but the Senate does not. The provision that passed the Senate 98-0 in 2007 was dropped from the final version of a House-Senate compromise bill, and never became law.

The 2007 measure was sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, and Mr. Durbin. Mr. DeMint was incredulous yesterday when it became clear on the Senate floor Mr. Durbin would no longer support his own legislation.

"This is the DeMint-Durbin amendment," he said, to which his erstwhile partner replied, "Not anymore."


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