Outrageous: how an ObamaCare slush fund pays for nanny-state lobbying

by Walter Olson on June 4, 2013

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.

P.S. Thanks to commenter gitarcarver for pointing out this April report on the problem by the investigative group Cause of Action. (& David Catron, American Spectator)

{ 6 comments }

1 Ed 06.04.13 at 9:13 am

Wonder how many of these groups are tax exempt and how long it took to get their applications approved?

2 William Nuesslein 06.04.13 at 9:43 am

I agree fully with Mr. Olson’s post.

When the legislation for ACA was to be put together, President Obama said that the Democrat Senator Max Baucus and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley should oversee the process. (Hillery Clinton was criticized for sending a fate accompli to the Congress.) The Republicans decided, after Senator Grassley gave his word to work in good faith, to limit President Obama to one term by any all means available to them, and Grassley and every other Republican withdrew from the process, offering only amendments to pander to their anti-choice base. The Republican party put politics above their legislative duties, and the instant obnoxious provision was put in the bill to keep fitness nuts on board. I am disgusted by Grassley and my blood boils every time I put Iowa Ethanol into my gas tank.

3 gitarcarver 06.04.13 at 10:32 am

The group Cause of Action has a similar report on the illegal use of funding by the CDC for lobbying efforts.

You can see the report here: http://causeofaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Final-CPPW-Report.pdf

4 Richard Gray 06.04.13 at 3:41 pm

WN – you curiously switched to the passive voice at the key part of your post. The “obnoxious provision was put in.” I assume if Senator Grassley put it in, you would have said so. So who put it in? That would be the proximate actor, not Senator Grassley.

5 William Nuesslein 06.05.13 at 4:12 am

@Richard Gray

My point was that some bipartisan force was needed to curb the excesses of the nanny crowd and other leftist loop-de-loops. Senator Grassley might have been the much needed counterweight, but he failed to do his duty. Grassley was supposed to limit provisions such as the one Mr. Olson rightly deplores.

I don’t see any way my comment implied that Senator Grassley put in the provision. He failed to stop it by withdrawing from the project.

6 L. C. Burgundy 06.05.13 at 10:53 am

Bipartisan force? They wanted a bipartisan farce is more like it. I think the Democrats have rightfully earned the credit for the implementation of Obamacare. The fact that they well going to ram through whatever they had the votes for is hardly the responsibility of an opposition party member. The Republicans are not obliged to provide Democrats cover for a bad bill and a bad law.

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