Health care reform shouldn’t need special deals

Rep. Joseph R. Pitts Congressman, Pennsylvania 16th District
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As I’m writing this, House Democratic leadership is feverishly trying to scrape together the last few votes to pass a massive government takeover of healthcare. It seems that every hour there is a new report about who is changing their vote from “yes” to “no” or “no” to “yes.”

Despite the introduction of a new package of “fixes,” the House must first pass the Senate healthcare reform bill. You may remember that this bill was passed on Christmas Eve only after dozens of Senators cut special deals to win their support. The deal-making hasn’t stopped, however, and this week we were introduced to a few new items.

Since one government takeover wasn’t enough, Democratic leadership has inserted an entirely different bill into the package of “fixes” to the Senate legislation. This legislation would eliminate private lenders from the student loan industry—every lender except one that is.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) successfully added a provision that would allow the Bank of North Dakota to continue servicing student loans under the new bill. Every college student in America would either get their student loan through the federal government or the Bank of North Dakota. Conrad’s deal is now known in Washington as the Bismarck Bank Job.

In the same package, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) secured an additional $100 million for hospitals in Tennessee. Gordon, the retiring Chairman of the House Science Committee, publicly switched his vote to yes and now there are rumors that he could be appointed to a position at NASA.

In reaction to this and other discussion that bill supporters could get new jobs in the executive branch, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has promised to put a hold on the nomination of any vote switcher placed before the Senate. Members shouldn’t be able to count on a cushy job in the administration if the voters throw them out of office in November.

This reconciliation package to fix the Senate bill is not guaranteed to pass into law. There is a good likelihood that President Obama will sign the Senate healthcare reform bill into law and that the fixes insisted by the House would either never pass the Senate or be significantly modified in that chamber.

Additionally, the separate package doesn’t remove a number of the special deals cut in December:

  • There is still $100 million for a single university hospital in Connecticut placed into the bill by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT).
  • Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) still gets $1 billion for New Jersey drug companies.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) ensured that Vermont will get $600 million in additional Medicaid funding. Since Vermont is a small state, that averages out to nearly $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in the state.
  • Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) will still get $5 billion to cover medical costs of union members. Additionally, the unions negotiated with the President to reduce the “Cadillac” tax on health plans by $117 billion. Many of the plans affected by this tax are union negotiated.
  • While the Cornhusker Kickback gets expanded from just Nebraska to all states, Sen. Ben Nelson still gets an exemption from new fees for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska.
  • Hawaii’s two Democratic Senators successfully exempt hospitals in Hawaii from planned reductions in federal payments.

Should the House act this weekend, the President will sign all of these special deals into law.

This healthcare reform act represents a government takeover of 17 percent of the American economy. Taken at face value, its cost is nearly $1 trillion in the first ten years. Since Congress is unlikely follow through on all the Medicare cuts and the anticipated tax revenue could fall far short, the true cost could be twice that.

Whether you agree or disagree with the bill, it is clearly the most far-reaching piece of legislation that Congress has dealt with in decades. We are set to remake healthcare for every American by the slimmest of margins. By contrast, Social Security and Medicare were passed with bipartisan majorities in both Houses. Legislation with such an astounding impact should stand on its own merits, not on a foundation of backroom deals and arm-twisting.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R) represents Pennsylvania’s 16th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.