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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Selling Out the Public Option?

Sometimes, “follow the money” is great advice if you’re trying to figure out how Washington works.

Often, though, it’s not that simple.

A case in point is the new ad from Democracy for America, the netroots group founded by Howard Dean, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. The spot, which is on the Internet and which the groups have promoted with e-mails to their supporters, implies that some Democratic senators have been paid not to do the right thing. Or at least what these groups consider to be the right thing, which means supporting a “public option” in the various health insurance overhaul proposals being considered by Congress. 

First, it’s true, according to a poll conducted in June for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, that 76 percent of those surveyed said that it was extremely important or quite important that people be given a choice between a public plan run by the federal government and private health insurance.

And the group’s figures for health industry donations to the seven senators named – Max Baucus of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Dianne Feinstein of California, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas – are more or less correct (more about that below). Though the ad doesn’t say so explicitly, these lawmakers have either said they do not support a federal plan or have hedged, and have each received more than $1 million from individuals or political committees connected with the industry – from $1,565,088 (Bayh) to $3,973,485 (Baucus).

But what about senators who do support such a plan? Turns out some of them have received as much as, or more than, some of the naysayers and fence-sitters. We could start with Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who says that making health care affordable and available to all is “the cause of my life“: He has championed it since 1970. For him, a government plan is an essential part of any legislation that emerges from Capitol Hill. Yet, using the very table that PCCC sent us to show its calculations for the senators it is targeting, we found that Kennedy has been the recipient of $2,286,347 from the health care sector since 1989.

Another example: Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat. He has strongly advocated for a public option, despite the fact that $2,458,910 has come into his coffers from the industry, according to the chart PCCC compiled. Or Tom Harkin of Iowa, another proponent of a government plan, and the recipient of $3,069,888 in contributions. Or Connecticut’s Chris Dodd, who, in Kennedy’s absence due to cancer, has shepherded a version of overhaul containing a public plan through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He’s taken in $3,619, 261 from health care interests.

We could go on, but you get the idea. Plenty of Senate supporters of various proposals to include a government-sponsored health insurance option in the revamping of the system have received health care industry campaign contributions that are right up there in amount with those received by the seven senators named in the ad. Now, to be perfectly frank, we don’t know how much influence the industry’s contributions have had on the views of any senator compared with other factors. That would require a scenario something like the one conjured in “Being John Malkovich,” and we’re pretty sure we don’t want to go climbing around inside the minds of our elected officials. (In fact, the more we think about it, the creepier it seems.)

But we’re confident that the groups airing the ads haven’t done that, either. And we find their attempt to tar Baucus, Landrieu, Conrad and the others with kowtowing to those who fill their war chests to be a brazen case of cherry-picking data. It may be convenient to leave out the senators who support the groups’ point of view even though they too have received large sums, but it’s not fair play.

(P.S. PCCC showed us its spreadsheet and tabulations for each senator. The group did its calculations using a somewhat different pool of contributions from the health care sector than does the Center for Responsive Politics; PCCC’s insurance industry numbers include contributions from life insurance and property/casualty insurance companies, for example, many of which have no particular stake in the health care system as a business. In general, the PCCC figures are a bit higher than CRP’s. However, PCCC did work with CRP data, and it was consistent in its calculations for each senator.)