Did you know that the Affordable Care Act creates an enormous, multi-billion-dollar slush fund — in the out years, it will raise $2 billion a year in perpetuity — for the federal government to spend on more or less anything that might “improve health and help restrain the rate of growth” of health-care costs? That the spending can bypass the Congressional appropriations process, and is rife with expenditures for the purposes of lobbying government itself, which is supposed to be an unlawful use of federal funds?
Somehow it didn’t sink in until I read this excellent investigation in Forbes by Stuart Taylor, Jr., the distinguished commentator and journalist now associated with the Brookings Institution. Because almost any cause arguably advances health, the administrators end up with close to unlimited discretion as to how to spend the money, which results in the usual array of goofy-sounding grant activities ranging “from ‘pickleball’ (a racquet sport) in Carteret County, N.C. to Zumba (a dance fitness program), kayaking and kickboxing in Waco, TX.”
It’s tailor-made for log-rolling and rewarding local friends, but the dangers go beyond that. In particular, as outraged Republicans from Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in the House to Susan Collins (R-Me.) in the Senate have been documenting, large sums from the program have been devoted to the purpose of lobbying for the passage of legislation at the local and state level — notwithstanding specific statutory language making that an unlawful way of spending money raised from federal taxpayers.
To quote Taylor:
* In Washington state, the Prevention Alliance, a coalition of health-focused groups, reported in notes of a June 22, 2012 meeting that the funding for its initial work came from a $3.3 million Obamacare grant to the state Department of Health. It listed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB), “tobacco taxes,” and increasing “types of outdoor venues where tobacco use is prohibited” as among “the areas of greatest interest and potential for progress.”
* The Sierra Health Foundation, in Sacramento, which received a $500,000 grant. in March 2013, described its plans to “seek local zoning changes to disallow fast food establishments within 1,000 feet of a school and to limit the number of fast food outlets,” along with restrictions on fast food advertising. A $3 million grant to New York City was used to “educate leaders and decision makers about, and promote the effective implementation of. . . a tax to substantially increase the price of beverages containing caloric sweetener.”
* A Cook County, Ill. report says that part of a $16 million grant “educated policymakers on link between SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] and obesity, economic impact of an SSB tax, and importance of investing revenue into prevention.” More than $12 million in similar grants went to groups in King County, Wash. to push for changes in “zoning policies to locate fast-food retailers farther from . . . schools.” And Jefferson County, Ala., spent part of a $7 million federal grant promoting the passage of a tobacco excise tax by the state legislature.
These aren’t isolated flukes: they look very much like the normal and planned operation of the program. A $7 million grant to activists in the St. Louis area went in part toward lobbying for the repeal of a state law barring municipal tobacco taxes. The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported on how it used a $1.5 million federal grant: “210 policy makers were contacted . . . 31 ordinances were passed . . . there were 26 community presentations made to local governments .. . and 16 additional ordinances were passed this quarter, for a cumulative total of 47.”
This is outrageous. Congress has enacted and reiterated the ban on lobbying with federal funds because of the obvious unfairness of requiring taxpaying citizens to support political efforts of which they disapprove. Now a combination of the most politicized sector of public health activism (which likes to dictate how people live) and a cross-section of the local political class (which likes to find new ways of raising taxes) is getting massive federal subsidies to pursue such lobbying, often on a scale that can bulldoze disorganized local opposition. If you were wondering why some bad new ideas for local legislation (e.g., zoning to keep fast-food restaurants out of big-city neighborhoods) seem to be everywhere despite a tepid level of voter enthusiasm, now you know. You’re paying for them to be everywhere.
I joined host Ray Dunaway on Hartford’s WTIC this morning to talk about the issue.