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By Jay Cost

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Democrats Risk Another Jacksonian Moment

Several years ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the first time as an adult. My most vivid memory from that journey was walking away from Union Station - looking to my left at the United States Capitol, then looking to my right to see...the Teamster's Union building.

It was a disheartening sight - not because I have anything against the Teamsters, but because it reminded me that they're down there: the lobbyists, the special interests, the rent-seekers - all looking to extract favors from the Congress.

Like all Americans, I know that they're down there, and I don't think it is a good way for a government to function. Yet, I tolerate it - because I believe they're mostly just tinkering at the margins. Sure, they're diverting some of my tax dollars to things that have nothing to do with me - but it's a tiny portion. As long as they're not actively getting in my way - I'm inclined to shake my head, but let it be. I reckon that many Americans feel the same.

This is why Democratic leaders are courting disaster with this health care bill. With it, they've moved their questionable wheelings and dealings from the margins to the center of American life. And because of this, they risk being swept away in another Jacksonian moment.

Make no mistake. This bill is so unpopular because it has all the characteristics that most Americans find so noxious about Washington.

It stinks of politics. Why is there such a rush to pass this bill now? It's because the President of the United States recognizes that it is hurting his numbers, and he wants it off the agenda. It might not be ready to be passed. In fact, it's obviously not ready! Yet that doesn't matter. The President wants this out of the way by his State of the Union Address. This is nakedly self-interested political calculation by the President - nothing more and nothing less.

What makes this all the more perversely political is that the bill's benefits do not kick in for years. Why? Politics again! Democrats wish to claim that the bill reduces the deficit, so they collect ten years worth of revenue but only pay five years worth of benefits.

The Congress and the President are rushing to wait - not because that's best for health care, but best for the political careers of Washington Democrats.

It stinks of influence peddlers. Reviewing winners and losers in the Senate health care bill shows clearly that it was written with the full advice and consent of privileged interest groups. Here are some of the most amazing provisions, courtesy of the AP:

-Nebraska, Louisiana, Vermont and Massachusetts. These states are getting more federal help with Medicaid than other states. In the case of Nebraska -- represented by Sen. Ben Nelson, who's providing the critical 60th vote for the legislation to pass -- the federal government is picking up 100 percent of the tab of a planned expansion of the program, in perpetuity.

-Beneficiaries of Medicare Advantage plans -- the private managed-care plans within Medicare -- in Florida. Hundreds of thousands of them will have their benefits grandfathered in thanks to a provision tailored by Sen. Bill Nelson.

-Longshoremen. They were added to the list of workers in high-risk professions who are shielded from the full impact of a proposed new tax on high-value insurance plans.

Big corporations get nice paydays, too. Private insurance industries get the public option eliminated. Meanwhile, PhRMA made sure that there would be no significant prescription drug re-importation provision in the bill. Byron Dorgan said the FDA might have put the kibosh on it because of pressure from the White House.

Yet when it comes to big, wet kisses for entrenched interests, you can't beat the individual mandate. People will soon have to buy health insurance from private companies, or else face a tax penalty from Uncle Sam. Democrats who think they can come back later to fix this perverse result are kidding themselves. The insurance lobby is already so powerful that Democrats couldn't get the public option through now - what makes them think they'll be able to later, after they've given insurers 30 million additional customers, and required every last American to do business with them? The insurance companies are going to be to the 21st century what Standard Oil was to the 19th.

It stinks of partisanship. Not a single Republican will vote for this bill in the Senate. I doubt it will get a single House Republican if the Stupak language is excluded. Partisan Democrats like to think that this is because Republicans are too partisan. That's ridiculous. Nobody can seriously accuse Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins of partisan hackery. Plus, Orin Hatch has been a major player in health care reform over the years, and Chuck Grassley made a good faith effort this summer to find common ground.

The fact that the President can't find a single Republican vote out of more than 200 potential supporters is a strong indication that this is a bad bill. The only people willing to vote for it are people who share with the President interests that are unrelated to health care. The biggest shared interest is their political livelihood: Democrats sink or swim together. But that's a horrible reason to vote for a bill that will affect so many people in such a profound way.

Ben Nelson sits in the middle of the Senate. He could be a Democrat or a Republican. If he were a Republican, but everything else about him were the same, would he have voted for this? Of course not. That should tell you everything you need to know about this bill.

People in Congress and the lobbyists who court them have pretty good gigs. They have nice offices, make big salaries, and have lots of people hop to at their say so. Yet ultimately, all of their money, power, and prestige come from the people. The people are the sole source of sovereignty in our nation. Our Constitution opens, "We the people of the United States" - not "We the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of the United States" or "We the senior members of Congress with plum committee assignments." Everything about our system is the way it is because the people allow it to be that way. This is why it's best for the entrenched interests and the politicians to keep their under-handed means and particularistic ends from affecting the people. They can take it all away in a single instant - so the smart approach is not to give them a reason.

This Congress and this President seem hell-bent on ignoring that maxim. It started last year with TARP. It continued into this year with the pork-laden, wasteful stimulus bill. It moved to the auto bailouts, reckless deficit spending, and coziness with Wall Street. And now, it has moved to health care "reform." The people are taking notice, they don't like it, and they're starting to blame the government for the weakened state of the union.

We might be on the verge of another Jacksonian moment: a time when the people awake from their slumber, angrily exercise their sovereign authority, and mercilessly fire the leaders who have for too long catered to the elites rather than average people. The first time this happened was in 1828 - when the people rallied to the cause of Old Hickory to avenge the "Corrupt Bargain" of four years prior. It's happened several times throughout the centuries. Most relevant to today, it happened time and again in the 1880s and 1890s, as the people hired then fired one Republican and Democratic majority after another in search of leaders who could attend to the people's interests instead of the special interests. That age saw the birth of the Populist Party. It was a time when so many felt so disgruntled by the political process that young William Jennings Bryan - just thirty-six years old and with only two terms in the House - came within a hundred thousand votes of the presidency.

I wonder if we've returned to that kind of dynamic. In true Jacksonian fashion, the country fired the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 because they bungled the war in Iraq and allowed the economy to sink into recession. They might soon have another Jacksonian moment, and fire these equally useless Democrats for hampering the recovery, exploding the deficit, and playing politics with health care.

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-Jay Cost