Posted by: Jeff | January 15, 2010

The “Bribe”

At least, that’s how Andrew Sullivan describes the deal cut between the unions and the Democratic leadership in order to move the health care legislation forward.

Democratic negotiators acceded to union demands for a scaled-back tax on high-end health-insurance plans, exempting union contracts from the tax until 2018, five years beyond the start date for other workers.

Philip Klein sums up the situation thusly:

If this policy is adopted, it would mean that there could be two Americans receiving the exact same benefits, but one American may be taxed and one wouldn’t, and the only difference would be one of them being a member of a union. This is unseemly and unfair, even by the standards of Obamacare. It has nothing to do with policy-making. It’s simply an outright bribe to a constituency that has contributed handily to Democratic campaigns.

I don’t think there’s any arguing with the conclusion that this deal is unseemly and unfair. Lexington over at The Economist compares it to George W. Bush saying “Join the National Rifle Association and we’ll cut your income taxes.” It is, without a doubt, a textbook example of the dirtiest kind of horse-trading – precisely the sort of thing that so many Americans instinctively recoil from. (Whether or not they should recoil from it is another matter.)

But is it a bribe? Sullivan seems to think so. As does Peter Suderman. I just got off a rather intense email debate with a conservative acquaintance back in Texas who described it as “payback” or a “thank you” from Obama to the unions in exchange for their support. (Lexington sounded similar notes.) I disagree.

Metaphors matter. What kind of metaphor we choose to describe this deal (“bribe,” “payback,” etc) will largely determine what our emotional reaction will be. Will we be outraged? Resentful? Or resigned? And those reactions come with political consequences: If I am outraged or resentful, I may gravitate towards Jane Hamsher’s left/progressive opposition to the health care bill. Or I might join the tea party-ers. If, on the other hand, I feel resignation – and I submit this is precisely what we all should be feeling – I will probably conclude that, as unseemly as this deal is, it is worth it to preserve the bill as well as most of the long-term structure of the excise tax.

Obviously, metaphors are also subjective. My biases are in favor of the bill and the excise tax, and that will affect what metaphors I choose. Others not positively predisposed to the legislation or the tax will no doubt be inclined towards other metaphors.

But metaphors must also comport with the facts on the ground. And the facts are these: The final bill passed by the Senate contained no carve-out in the tax for the unions. The possibility was considered early on and dropped. The Obama Administration then proceeded to throw all its political capital behind not only the Senate’s bill, but the excise tax specifically as its preferred policy. If the carve-out for the unions was a payback or a thank-you for their support, the Democrats or the Administration could have quietly inserted it long before now. They did not. Furthermore, they cut this deal under the threat of the unions’ opposition. People offering bribes do not typically offer them under duress. (At least, once duress is a factor, we no longer describe them as such.)

This deal was more akin to a ransom payment or a protection racket. The unions put a gun to the head of the health care legislation. (And, by extension, to the heads of the 30 million people who will finally receive coverage under it, and the millions more who will benefit from the new regulations.) What Obama and the Democratic leadership did was pay them off to not pull the trigger.

If that’s a bribe, then grocers in New York were bribing the mafia whenever they paid them to not burn down their stores. Maybe you think standing on principle and not acceding to the mafia’s demands would have been the right move. But then you need to explain to the grocers why letting their livelihoods burn is acceptable, because at least we stuck to our abstract ideals.

*ADDENDUM – To the unions’ credit, it looks like their arrangement with lawmakers also included a few other deals, such as an exemption from the excise tax for dental and vision plans, which would apply to union and non-union workers alike.

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