Why The Cornhusker Kickback Raised So Much Attention

Karen Tumulty picks up on a general awareness out in Massachusetts of Ben Nelson’s Nebraska Medicaid deal, which was used as a symbol for the tainted process of the health care reform debate.

The deal now known as the “Cornhusker Kickback” may have been one of the biggest blunders in modern political history. Normally, you’d be surprised if people in Massachusetts even know who the Senator from Nebraska is. But the number of people I talked to who brought up Ben Nelson’s name, unprompted, was striking. I’m also told, by some who were doing phonebanking, that they got an earful about it over and over.

Voters I talked to also brought up the deal with labor. How come, they wanted to know, that everyone has to pay this “Cadillac Tax” on high-cost insurance plans except for the unions, who get a five-year exemption? People are so disgusted by the process, I think, that they have ceased to believe that there is anything in this bill for them.

Based on my own conversations, that seems accurate, and also completely insane. Ben Nelson’s Medicaid deal is about the least offensive thing he’s ever done in the United States Senate. He got poor people in his state a good deal for health care, and ensured that enough state governors would vocalize their frustrations about it that this Medicaid expansion would essentially be federalized, which is really good policy. No liberal validators tried to contextualize that element of the deal.

Tumulty chalks this up to a heightened amount of information among the electorate about the Congressional sausage-making process, and that’s true to a small extent. But actually it’s a testament to how Republicans can still drive narratives and twist the information that reaches the public. I’m sure most people in Massachusetts didn’t know that Nelson also got a tax break for one large insurance company in his state, Mutual of Omaha, in the negotiations. They also probably weren’t aware that the far bigger Medicaid kickback in the Senate bill went to Massachusetts.

The reason that conservatives seized on the Nelson deal was because it applied to a narrow sliver of easily demonized poor people in a red state. A lot of powerful people in right-wing media saw the opportunity to use the kickback to define the legislation as giving benefits to “other” people. It turns out that the bill pays for the “other,” with the other defined as pharmaceutical company profits, for example, in a multitude of different ways, but only the Nebraska deal fits with a right-wing critique of government as helping the hated poor who should be able to help themselves. That’s why it lodged in the minds of conservatives who heard about it endlessly on Fox News and AM talk radio.

Those lamenting “media coverage” giving too close scrutiny to the legislative process are wrong. They should be lamenting their own conduct, for failing to contextualize that scrutiny and allowing those interested in demonizing the bill to selectively highlight the “backroom” deals. Sunshine remains a good disinfectant and crucial to the modern legislative process. But that sunshine must lead to a proper understanding of the revelations. For one, media investigators could bother to tell everyone that the only reason Ben Nelson had so much power is because of a dysfunctional Senate system that has turned 60 votes into a de facto requirement.

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