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Analysis Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

A case of bi-partisan pork-barreling
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Dec 18, 2006, 00:59

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It seemed that at last Senate negotiators were doing the right thing by Medicare. They turned down a Medicare proposal pushed by scandal-ridden House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill) that would have meant big slices of pork for an insurance company in his home state.

This was on the morning of December 7, ironically the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, in which numbers of today�s seniors participated. Yet, like the proverbial phoenix, the Washington Post reports the $100 million platter was served up again, this time with an extra gravy plan for a big Nevada land swap backed by Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the incoming Senate majority leader, proving pork barrel pushers come from both sides of the aisle.

Hastert�s provision would give certain Medicare beneficiaries more time to change their health care coverage. Reid�s plan involved more than 900 square miles of federal land. Both were included in a huge tax and trade package Congress approved right before its final adjournment early on the morning of December 9.

Both provisions can be harmful to public interests. Land-use activists complained later this week that Reid�s offer would sell off too much federal land to private developers. It also circumvents procedures for land-disposal. On the other hand, a number of senior senators criticized Hastert�s pork pie on the floor of the Senate, pointing out it favored one type of Medicare plan over others. Executives from Aon Corp., the insurance company based in Hastert�s home state, had lobbied for the provision.

The Hastert recipe �creates an unlevel playing field,� commented Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the incoming Finance Committee chairman. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said, �I am also disappointed in the process that led to the provision in the bill,� which, in fact, was a classic quid pro quid, this for that, of bi-partisan deal-making.

According to Baucus, Grassley and incoming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), they will most probably try to strike the Medicare provision in the new Congress next year. But why propose it in the first place, if not to slide two last orders of pork pie under the radar in the eleventh hour of the outgoing Congress? Monkey business as usual.

The Hastert and Reid deals were pasted onto a $50 billion, 10-year tax and trade bill on a procedural vote. More razzle-dazzle. This huge bill was another gravy train, which included a $1 billion add-on of health savings accounts, a Republican-backed program for tax-free savings (read tax cuts) for those affluent enough to afford the health accounts. With it, came some more corporate welfare, 520 tariff suspensions valued at tens of millions of bucks to US corporations.

The Hastert provision allows certain Medicare beneficiaries who get doctor and hospital benefits through Medicare�s original program to now switch their health coverage after the period of open enrollment, which closes at the end of March. It also limits the plan type that recipients can choose as an alternative, that is, the plan type that the provision would most benefit.

Most organizations offer combination plans that include Medicare physician, hospital and prescription drug benefits. The groups that would be helped by the provision, such as Sterling (a subsidiary of Aon), mainly offering private health plans under Medicare that give beneficiaries drug coverage through another organization. The cost of this measure would, if passed, cost the government more money, and give Aon a boost.

Reid�s dumpling would allow 70 square smiles of 900 square smiles of Nevada wilderness to be sold to private interests for development. It�s one of several Reid proposals to make large stretches of federal land in Nevada a combo of wilderness and private development. Proceeds of the land sales would go to local governments. Of course, Reid�s Republican colleague from Nevada, Sen. John Ensign, co-sponsored the provision.

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Projects, summed it up by saying of Reid, �He�s selling off federal land that belongs to all of us and keeping the money n Nevada.� A spokesman for Reid, Jim Manley, called the provision a way to protect wilderness areas, improve water conservation and enhance fire prevention efforts. And so on.

I say, once again, it�s the pols playing the public like a piano, two sets of hands making music to make home-state registers ring. Let�s hope this same old tune does not become the anthem of the future.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Reach him at

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