Was it just me, or did anyone else find it troubling to read the Washington Post story “Democrats round up health bill votes” on Saturday and stumble upon this sentence: “Rep. Jason Altmire, a second-term Democrat who represents a blue-collar district in suburban Pittsburgh, was the focus of an aggressive lobbying effort Friday, taking calls from Obama, Pelosi and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.”
I understand the calls from Emanuel and Sebelius, but why exactly was the secretary of Education leaning on a Pittsburgh congressman to vote for the healthcare bill? What did he say? “I’m a former basketball player and school chief from Chicago, and I’m hoping you’ll vote for the bill.” Could $100 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds and the enticement of $5 billion about to given away in Race to the Top and i3 funds gives the secretary leverage, especially if he promises to ensure that this or that proposal gets “full and careful consideration”? Of course, such inducements would be a huge no-no—but the behavior merits the question. And what’s a little wink-wink between friends anyway, eh?
Altmire noted, “They’re pulling out all the stops,” but why exactly was the overexposed secretary of Education working the phones for a healthcare bill? The secretary is struggling with incredibly ambitious timelines for Race to the Top and i3; the push for “common standards”; concerns that ARRA dollars have not been used as intended (and have not delivered any transformation); and efforts to quietly nationalize the funding of higher education and the development of online instruction … and yet still has time to dispatch invaluable counsel on healthcare reform? An impressive display of time management, I guess. But just what is the secretary saying, or offering? This is when federal slush funds, even those with generally laudable goals (as with Race to the Top and i3), start to beg questions.
Do I think that the secretary of Education was doing something illicit? I doubt it. After all, he seems like an honorable enough guy. That said, the situation raises the same concern as the fawning press release and instructional materials the Department of Education issued regarding President Obama’s back-to-school address to students in September. Given the vast resources the feds are spending and the extraordinary opportunity to use discretionary funds to drive state and local policy, all of it justified by the pleas of “crisis,” it’s critical that the administration strive to avoid the appearance of impropriety or the sense that officials are using our money to serve their ends. Once again, the administration has not only failed to clear a high bar on this count, but has displayed little inclination to recognize even a low one.