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Would President Obama Trade Drill, Baby Drill for Health Care Votes?

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This morning, President Obama announced that he is reversing a 20 year policy that prohibited oil and gas drilling off of much of the East Coast and selected other areas. Candidate Obama argued thoughtfully against this very move while candidate Palin made it a centerpiece of her deliciously misinformed campaign. Nobody other than oil companies liked the announcement.

Indeed, this is a bad idea from every perspective.

There is no doubt that Mr. Obama realizes that reversing this policy will produce little or no oil or gas for many years. It will not help offset the rising price of oil as the international economy recovers. It plays into anti-science talking heads that lack of drilling is our real global warming problem. It inevitably raises risks of drilling and shipping related oil and gas pollution.

But it doesn't even seem like there is some intricate, inside-the-beltway triple bank shot kind of future deal here. There is no evidence whatsoever that it is part of a back room deal to gain Senate votes for a tough global warming bill - indeed, it is likely to have the opposite effect. Now that Republicans have the drilling they want, why bargain?

There are only two explanations that make any sense to me. Both are searingly depressing.

The first is that the Administration is just terrible at bargaining on environmental policies. Rather than make trades, it prefers to make concessions first and then hope that good will and a sense of fair dealing leads its opponents - almost all Republicans but many fossil fuel Democrats - to reciprocate without even a discussion. There is no shortage of evidence for this, most recently being the billions of Federal nuclear loan guarantees for a nuclear plant in Georgia. The resulting electricity will be expensive, the nuclear waste has absolutely no place to go, and neither of the Georgia Republican senators will ever vote for anything remotely useful. Bad policy, bad politics.

The second is that the Administration is in fact willing to do deals - after all, they made deals worth hundreds of billions with the drug and hospital industries - but that this reflects a deal made to pass legislation already done and not something to be done in the future. There is only one piece of legislation that could possibly be - health care legislation.

Did the Administration buy votes from pro-drilling Democrats? Should we expect more bad news policies - policies that make no sense as policy or politics - to be announced in the future?

To be perfectly clear, I have no objection to making deals to pass legislation. Some deals are worth it. Others clearly not. It depends both on what we got and what we gave up.

I personally would not have traded offshore oil drilling for a few votes on health care. I am confident that those who voted for change in November 2008 share that view. I would like to know whether President Obama would or did make such a trade.

I don't know which would be worse - believing that the Obama Administration is terrible at negotiating, since there is a lot left to negotiate in the remainder of his first term, or that the President would trade truly terrible environmental policies for mixed bag health reform. I sure would love to have a third option to believe.

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