Landrieu’s Pay-off: Ethical and Playing by the Rules

[Like you, I am thoroughly tired of seeing Claude Rains’ Capt. Renault quoted in these situations, but sometimes his famous “Casablanca” line is too apt to resist. This is such a time.]

Pundits are “shocked—shocked!” that Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu traded her vote to allow debate on the health care bill for $100 million dollars of earmarked funds for Medicaid subsidies in her state. Fox demagogue/clown Glenn Beck called Landrieu a prostitute and a hooker. Time Magazine columnist Mark Halperin accompanied his condemnation of Landrieu with a disgusting photoshopped picture of the Senator sporting the infamous semen-hair gel ‘do from the raunchy comedy, “What About Mary?” The deal was widely called a bribe by indignant bloggers, angry conservatives, and even some liberals. “A Senator’s healthcare vote should be based on whether he or she believes in public subsidies, from middle class and wealthy taxpayers, to provide healthcare for low income Americans. It should not be based on the government equivalent of a bribe,” intoned the conservative website, “Truthbusters.”

Yes, and political pundits should make their judgments on completely non-partisan, fair, open-minded assessment of the facts, and not based on their ideological views. And I should look like Cary Grant.

The accusations are nonsense. This was not a bribe. This was not extortion. This was not illegal. It was not in violation of any legislative rule. It was not unethical. This was politics in its purest form. And Senator Landrieu, far from deserving condemnation, should be praised for doing her job, and doing it well.

Landrieu’s primary duty is to her state, and her state is in dire circumstances. It is one of the poorest in the nation, it is facing huge fiscal deficits, and there is the festering problem of New Orleans, still crippled by Katrina. She had great bargaining power  because she could have blocked debate on the Senate health care bill by voting against cloture. In politics, such things are valuable political currency, value to be determined through the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-support-your-pet-project horse-trading that defines what democratic legislatures do, have always done and must do if anything of use is to emerge out of the democratic process.

America was created with deals that differ from this one only in their terms. Those of us who are not candidates to appear on Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segment know that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson “bribed” Southern delegates to vote for ratification of  the Declaration of Independence in exchange for allowing the institution of slavery to stand. In the Compromise of 1790, the South was awarded the new nation’s capital city in exchange for the federal government assuming state debts arising out of the Revolutionary War.

Unlike those deals, which changed the course of U.S. and world history, the so-called “second Louisiana Purchase”  engineered by Harry Reid and Landrieu is small potatoes–potato chips, really. Pringle’s potato chips. Landrieu only voted to allow debate, not for the bill itself, and the bill ought to be debated. There is no guarantee that the earmarked millions for Louisiana will even survive to be in the final version of the bill—many are betting that it won’t. All Landrieu got for certain was some well-publicized drama showing her constituents that she was in there fighting for them, and because she faces a tough re-election bid, that’s good enough.

Even if the whole amount ultimately finds its way into her state’s coffers, Landrieu did nothing wrong. Part of her job is to maneuver to get Federal funds for her state, any way she can…otherwise Senator Byrd will get all of it for projects in West Virginia. Unlike the despicable earmark process that busts the budget and makes fiscal responsibility impossible, this deal was out in the open for all to see, and criticize. That means that it met all criteria for ethical politics. Nothing hidden. Nothing nefarious. A bill moves forward.

Senator Landrieu would have earned a perfect ethics grade in this episode if only she hadn’t uttered an obvious and self-serving whopper even while proclaiming that she had made the deal and was proud of it. “It is not a $100 million fix, it is a nearly $300 million fix,” she said in her statement on the Senate floor. “I am proud to have fought for it.” Then, incredibly, she said, “The reason I am moving to the debate, as I expressed in this statement, is that the cost of health care is bankrupting families and it is bankrupting our government. We cannot afford the status quo.” That’s right: Landrieu simultaneously wants to take credit for making the deal, and still have everyone believe that the deal had nothing to do with her vote.

That’s not politics; that’s lying, and displays a colossal disrespect for the intelligence of the public as well. But her deal with Harry Reid? In the Bizarro World of legislative politics, it was completely ethical.

One thought on “Landrieu’s Pay-off: Ethical and Playing by the Rules

  1. Pingback: Ethics Notes: Santa, the Senate, and Snow « Ethics Alarms

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