Ruth Marcus | The Politics of Politics as Usual

Cash for Cloture! Cornhusker Kickback! Louisiana Purchase!

We are, or so we are told by conservative commentators and politicians, supposed to be indignant, outraged, horrified at the fact that lawmakers with bargaining power extracted special deals for their states in the negotiations over health care reform.

“Prostitution has been legalized in Washington, D.C.,” railed Rush Limbaugh. “Backroom deals that amount to bribes,” lamented South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Give me a break.

You may not like it. It’s certainly not pretty. But this kind of political horse-trading has been around since the dawn of politics, if not the dawn of horses. So the protestations of fury from opponents of the measure are awfully hard to take.

Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson obtained special treatment on Medicaid for his state before he agreed, at long last, to provide the 60th Senate vote. Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu squeezed out extra Medicaid funding for her state — and proudly pointed out that the actual amount was $300 million, not a mere $100 million as had initially been reported. These are lawmakers looking out for the interests of their states, which, if I’m not mistaken, is a big part of what they were elected to do. Somewhere I hear the faint sound of Lyndon Johnson clapping. Exhortations about the common good are nice, but nothing persuades like a bridge.

If anything, the Democratic deal-making looks tame by comparison to the Republican arm-twisting in advance of — and during — the House vote on the prescription drug program for Medicare in 2003. In the most egregious example, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, offered to endorse the son of retiring Michigan Republican Nick Smith if he agreed to vote “yes” on the bill. Somehow I don’t recall the Limbaughs of the world getting the vapors over DeLay’s behavior.

In any event, there’s a huge difference between an offer that goes purely to a politician’s personal benefit and an offer of help to a lawmaker’s state (and therefore to his or her own political benefit). The first verges on the criminal. The second is part of the job description.

Granted, this is not President Obama’s promised change from politics as usual. Then again, that’s just what it is: politics as usual.