'Backroom Deals' a Bipartisan Necessity

03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The moral indignation generated by the payoffs to Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), dubbed "The Louisiana Purchase," and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) disdained as "Cornhusker Corruption," betrays a lack of understanding of democracy.

Barack Obama was hardly the first president to use special inducements to obtain his legislative goals, and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was hardly the first legislative leader. A President is not a dictator, much less a Senate leader. As both President and Senate leader, Lyndon Johnson was probably the master of this tactic; that's how he got Medicare, Medicaid and civil rights bills through a conservative-dominated Senate. Indeed, political leaders from mayors to governors to presidents often must get into the pit, and wheel and deal to fulfill their political visions (and campaign promises).

The scorn heaped upon Obama and Reid, who needed those two "backroom deals" to gain Senate passage of health care reform was unparalleled. It also betrays a lack of institutional memory. Republicans who seem most upset by the $1O0 million Senator Landrieu obtained for Louisiana (she later boasted in speeches that the figure was going to be closer to $300 million) and the Medicaid relief Senator Nelson obtained for Nebraska are apparently unaware that such tactics were routinely used by Republican presidents, even by Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of modern conservatives.

When President Reagan needed Democratic votes to enact a tax cut, his signature issue and the first item on his agenda, he reached out to the Boll Weevils, southern conservative Democrats from districts he had carried. He telephoned then Rep. (later Sen.) John Breaux of Louisiana, who was having dinner with several fellow conservatives. Breaux told Reagan that he was especially concerned about the sugar subsidy. Budget Direct David Stockman had already decided to axe the program.

"I was tasked with explaining to Stockman that he had to back off," recalled Ken Duberstein, then Reagan's congressional liaison. "That was the key to the Reagan Revolution. If we had lost that vote, it [the Reagan Revolution] wouldn't have happened." When the deal became known, Breaux famously explained, "I can't be bought, but I can be rented."

Similarly, at a small Washington lunch a month before he died, former Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill regaled his tablemates by describing how he had successfully lobbied 17 House Democrats to vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement, at the behest of President Clinton. At that time, the bill was teetering on the verge of extinction. Tip recalled that when President Carter asked for help lobbying for an energy bill, in what the president called "the moral equivalent of war," Tip advised him to call the members in and see what they wanted -- a highway, a post office, a VA hospital, whatever. But Carter didn't speak that language, and got clobbered. Not so Clinton, who gave away the store to get enactment of NAFTA. One of the diners said, "Tip, that's a hell of a way to run a government." Tip flashed his million dollar smile and responded, "Mary, darling, that's the ONLY way to run a government."

Martin Tolchin capped 40 years with the New York Times by founding The Hill newspaper and Politico. Susan Tolchin is University Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. The article is excerpted from their forthcoming book, Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favors from the Clubhouse to the White House.