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Healthcare reform backlash: Americans angry over earmarks

Healthcare reform legislation often means cutting 'deals,' but public anger over earmarks may further gridlock healthcare reform.

By / Staff writer / February 5, 2010


Forget the old saw about the perils of knowing too much about how sausages or laws are made. Americans, it turns out, wanted to know a lot about the backroom deals that went into the healthcare bill.

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Stung by months of criticism of a $300 million deal over Medicaid payments, dubbed "the Louisiana purchase," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) took to the Senate floor yesterday to set the record straight. The deal – an agreement to lower Medicaid charges to the state due to per capita income figures artificially inflated by post-Katrina relief payments – was not secret, she said. Nor was it offered in exchange for her vote on healthcare reform.

"I don't want to see what has been said inappropriately or erroneously to jeopardize the healthcare bill in the future," she told reporters after the speech.

President Obama has acknowledged that these deals helped turn the public against the legislation. "With all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, 'What's in it for me?' " he said in his State of the Union address.

For many Americans, those "sweetheart deals," tucked into the legislation for certain states or groups, became a flash point.

Terms for these deals – including the Louisiana Purchase, the Cornhusker kickback, and the Cadillac tax exemption – went viral over the Internet. Newspapers and broadcast media also picked up reports about the deals – accurate or not.

The public came to see the process as corrupt and self-serving. "The volume of viral e-mails attacking healthcare has really been remarkable," says Brooks Jackson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center's "Ninety percent of what we see is false," he adds.

Of course, Congress is no stranger to making deals that benefit a state or district. The practice of targeting funds to member projects in spending bills – also known as earmarking – took off in the 1990s (see chart).

But in recent years, there's been a backlash to the backroom deals of Congress. Public-interest groups set up a cottage industry in tracking and drawing attention to earmarks, and Americans have become more vocal in objecting to them. The public uproar in 2005 over a $223 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska stunned lawmakers: They hadn't expected people to dig into matters so arcane.

The response to reports of backroom deals in the healthcare legislation was even more surprising. As Senate majority leader Harry Reid began drafting a compromise bill in secret, every whisper of a deal was amplified.