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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Targeting Ensign

We’re not ones to doubt that money can influence politics. But uncovering a paying-for-favors scandal takes more than a mere list of campaign contributions and a few committee votes.

That tactic, however, is being used – again – in the health care debate, this time in an ad from the liberal group Health Care for America Now. HCAN’s TV spot, which will run in Reno and Las Vegas for one week on a $110,000 buy, draws a link between Republican Sen. John Ensign’s contributions from the insurance industry and his votes against two "public option" amendments to the Senate Finance Committee health care bill.

"Why did John Ensign side with the insurance companies instead of us?" the ad asks. "Follow the money."

But HCAN’s support for the ad offers no evidence that the Nevada senator (who certainly has been facing some ethical questions lately) opposed a federal insurance plan because of his campaign contributions.

Plus, the dollar figure in the ad is inflated. HCAN says Ensign took "$874,000 dollars from the health insurance industry," but that total includes contributions from all types of insurance companies – life insurance, car and home insurance, for instance – not just health insurance. HCAN gets its total by adding money Ensign has received since 1989 from the insurance industry and from health services/HMOs, based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics. That latter category, too, includes businesses other than health insurance companies. As CRP says, this wide-ranging category includes "medical laboratories, drug and alcohol outpatient dependence services, HIV/AIDS treatment and testing programs" and even "opticians and companies that make and sell contact lenses and glasses" – as well as actual HMOs. Ensign’s $874,000 in contributions most likely comes from more than just the "health insurance industry," as the ad says.

We wrote about this issue in July, when an ad launched by two liberal groups equated opposition to the "public option" with hefty contributions from the health industry. As we said then, it’s not so easy to draw a causal link between the two. Ensign may have voted against the amendments, but others who voted for the amendments tallied up even higher totals in so-called "health insurance industry" donations.

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the sponsor of one of the "public option" amendments, received $1,096,700 from the insurance industry. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted for both amendments, has taken in $1,394,118. "Follow the money"? It’s a more complicated trail than this ad claims.