Lessons from the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit vote
A 15-minute vote was scheduled, and at the end of 15 minutes, the Democrats had won. The Republican leadership froze the clock for three hours while they desperately whipped defectors. This had never been done before. The closest was a 15-minute extension in 1987 that then-congressman Dick Cheney called “the most arrogant, heavy-handed abuse of power I’ve ever seen in the 10 years that I’ve been here.”
Tom DeLay bribed Rep. Nick Smith to vote for the legislation, using the political future of Smith's son for leverage. DeLay was later reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee.
The leadership told Rep. Jim DeMint that they would cut off funding for his Senate race in South Carolina if he didn't vote for the bill.
The chief actuary of Medicare, Rick Foster, had scored the legislation as costing more than $500 billion. The Bush administration suppressed his report, in a move the Government Accounting Office later judged "illegal.”
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a "no" vote, spent the night "hiding on the Democratic side of the floor, crouching down to avoid eye contact with the Republican search team."
Rep. Butch Otter, who provided one of the final votes after hours of arm-twisting from the Republican leadership, said, “I thought there was a chance I would get sick on the floor.”
Remember all this? Probably not. There wasn't much reporting on it at the time. It wasn't a major controversy, despite resulting in multiple official investigations. I went back through the archives of National Review's “The Corner” to see if they covered the scandal. Not really. There are four or five posts on it, and the most substantive is Ramesh Ponnuru telling some columnist that "it's silly to act as though holding a vote open for a long time is an act of lawbreaking."
They're considerably more exercised about the use of reconciliation today. Obama is "shoving health care down the throats of the American people in the teeth of overwhelming public opposition and any sense of parliamentary decency," writes Mark Steyn, and I think he means "without" any sense of parliamentary decency.
But the point isn't to claim hypocrisy, as I think charges of hypocrisy are boring. First, it's to note that the health-care reform process has been a model of transparency and parliamentary decency in comparison to the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit process (no actuaries have been intimidated into silence, for instance); second, to note that Americans don't really care about process, and people forget about even serious abuses of legislative power; and third, to suggest that Republicans are a whole lot better at making controversies out of their opponents’ behavior than Democrats are.
Whatever you think of the process that resulted in the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, the bill today is settled, and even popular, law. The abuses that ushered it into existence are mostly forgotten. Democrats spoke of its repeal in the months after its passage but are now strengthening it in the health-care reform bill. Republicans, meanwhile, were so confounded by Medicare's popularity that they authored and passed a massive expansion of the entitlement state. Democrats, who are currently trying to pass health-care reform in a way that doesn't break congressional rules but does upset some Republicans, should take note.