Thursday's editorial criticizes both the deal that led to the passage of the Senate health care bill and our attorney general's high-profile investigation of it.
Republican critics derisively call the deal that passed health care through the Senate the "Cornhusker kickback," and to be completely honest, it does kind of stink of politics as usual.
One part of the bill expands Medicaid to cover people who make slightly above the poverty line, splitting the added cost between the states and the federal government. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat, opposed this idea, so to placate him, the Democratic leadership promised him that the feds would pick up the tab for his home state's share, an estimated $100 million over the bill's first 10 years.
The deal represents only a tiny fraction of the bill's $900 billion price, but it smacks of that pork-pile style of politics that Americans love to hate (especially when it's in someone else's state). In response, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint proposed a completely reasonable ban on trading earmarks for votes, but he unfortunately garnered only 46 votes (including, curiously, Nelson).
That probably should have ended the issue, at least until the conference committee convenes to hammer out differences between the House and Senate health bills. But - perhaps seizing on the tea-party trend of labeling any federal act one opposes "unconstitutional" - S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster announced his intent to "investigate" the constitutionality of the Nebraska deal. Thirteen other Republican attorneys general quickly signed on.
McMaster's opposition appears to be built on constitutional language calling for uniformity in federal law, an argument that would effectively prohibit all earmarks, which by definition allocate federal money differently to different states. That goal may be laudable, though whether or not it's plausible remains to be seen. But the timing and the manner of this "investigation" seems just as politically motivated as the original Nebraska deal. Call it the "Gamecock grandstand."
For one thing, the bill is not even law yet, so an officious-sounding "investigation" before the legislative process even finishes seems premature. Second, one theory even suggests the Nebraska deal may be a good thing: When the Medicaid expansion begins to take effect several years from now, all states will demand the same treatment Nebraska is receiving, shifting the burden for the new patients back to the federal government where it properly belonged in the first place. Such an outcome is desired by even our penny-pinching Gov. Mark Sanford, who has requested a similar exemption for South Carolina from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.
"As work now begins to meld the House and Senate bills, we think it would amount to Congressional malpractice for this generous benefit not to be extended to every state in the nation, including South Carolina," Sanford wrote.
Statement of opposition to the bill or even the Nebraska deal might perhaps have been appropriate from McMaster as a candidate on the trail, but his asking any public official to investigate the constitutionality of a not-yet-done political deal seems a waste of taxpayer money. It takes about as much political courage to oppose health-care reform in South Carolina as it does to support it in Massachusetts, but what better way to score points in a crowded Republican primary than with a little extra face time on Fox News?
Finally, we believe McMaster has better things to investigate at home, such as the distinct possibility that a sitting governor organized a 2008 Commerce Department trip to Argentina. So far, the S.C. legislature and the Ethics Commission have both taken a pass on the question - leaving McMaster's office as perhaps the last that could shine some light into that unexamined corner.But that, of course, might irritate the Republican electorate.