The Very Definition of Fiscal Conservatism

Col. Mustard and others are burning up memeorandum about Ben Nelson’s medicaid bribe, calling it disgusting and any number of names, and you know what?

They’re largely right about Nelson’s disgraceful buyout, but missing the bigger picture.

Nelson is a self-professed conservative Democrat and a fiscal conservative. He repeatedly tells us how concerned he is about cost of any and all bills, he repeatedly intones gravely about the budget and out of control spending. Who could forget this quote from during the stimulus debate:

After receiving a nearly $900 billion bill passed by the House of Representatives, Senator Nelson led a bipartisan group of Senators in “trimming the fat, frying the bacon, and milking all the sacred cows” to cut out $108 billion in unnecessary spending and refocus the package on job creation and economic revitalization. Nelson’s efforts enabled a $787 billion package to pass, delivering $1.1 billion in investment in Nebraska, and hundreds of millions in tax relief for Nebraska’s families and businesses.

In fact, Ben Nelson doesn’t want you to forget it, because it is featured on his Senate website.

But that is while the cameras are running. When they are off, he has never found a tax cut he didn’t like and a spending bill that aided Nebraska that he could say no to. Not only did he not just love the Bush 2001 tax cuts, he loved them so much he supported the reconciliation process for them. In 2003, he was one of the 50 he voted for the second round of tax cuts.

So, yes, the Medicaid bribe for Ben Nelson is a disgrace and shameful in so many ways. It is truly outrageous and a scathing indictment of our current system and the ridiculous hoops that have to be jumped through to get anything done in the Senate. Someone truly concerned with budgetary matters and the health and security of the nation would have said- “If fully funding this program is that valuable to Nebraska, it probably has some value across the other 49 states, and I should work to secure that funding and find a way to pay for it with budget cuts elsewhere or a new funding mechanism.”

But he didn’t, did he? He extorted what he could for his state, didn’t care how that money was paid for, and went before the cameras to wax eloquent about abortion.

*** Update ***

Kthug, also.

Because that is just how the “fiscal conservatives” in both parties roll.

49 replies
  1. 1
    DanaHoule says:

    I wonder what it’s like to be a Senator and know you’ll never, ever do anything that would make someone think it was an act of courage.

  2. 2
  3. 3
    Jim says:

    also, too, don’t forget Nellie’s razor-sharp insight into funding war: Borrowing is bad, unless you call it “war bonds”, which increase the deficit and debt, but they really don’t, because you call them “war bonds”. Lending money to the government is sacrifice if you call it a “war bond”, even if you’re still receiving interest on that loan. Raising taxes to pay for war? Why, that’s just kookytalk.

    Ben Nelson says so, and fellow Very Serious Deficit Hawk Evan Bayh agrees!

  4. 4

    Not exactly to your point, but Krugman takes a shot at the so-called deficit hawks:

    So did the deficit scolds, the people who preach the need to rein in entitlements and start paying our way, rally behind the cost-containment plans? Um, no. As I said, they made excuses, whining that the bill doesn’t do enough (as if there were any chance of passing a bill with everything they want), or insisting that even though the legislation does do the right thing, it doesn’t matter, because Congress won’t let the cost cuts go into effect — which turns out to be a claim at odds with the evidence of history.

  5. 5
    dr. bloor says:

    The republic has always had its Ben Nelsons, and this is always how business has been done. There was never any chance to convince him to “abandon his principles” and support cloture without a lucrative carrot. Senate leadership erred not in paying him off, but in not doing so earlier in order to minimize the negative fallout and wasted time that resulted from his public temper tantrums.

  6. 6
    aimai says:

    I can’t believe that it isn’t built into the bargaining system that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I mean, its astonishing that Nelson should ever have been allowed to ask for a benefit for his state (the medicaid benefit) that wouldn’t *automatically* be extended to all the others. Surely the formula for all government spending ought to be framed, well, formulaicly, with “all states falling into class A, or B” receiving the benefit? I can’t believe that Senators are allowed to carve out exclusions for their states. I mean, I see that it happened, and I see why it happens, but it just seems even more immoral than the deficit hawking in public and the private looting of the treasury. At the very least Nelson should have had to agree to appearing everywhere in public with a sign saying “bought and sold with other people’s tax dollars.”


  7. 7
    Max says:


    i blame Obama

    Didn’t you get the newsletter? We’re blaming Obama next week, this week we’re blaming Rahm.


  8. 8
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    Hell, if I was a Senator passing this thing, I’d extort every damned thing I could think of. What are they gonna do? Look at me sternly? Go on a talk show and say, “Look, I’m not here to talk about Fuckhead..” They’ve already said they gotta have a bill, any bill, no matter what, no matter how bad, no matter the cost, political or otherwise.

    So I’m in the driver’s seat, bitches.

    Go ahead, complain about me. You gave me all this power.

  9. 9
    DougL (frmrly: Conservatively Liberal) says:

    Nelson talks like a Republican and spends like one. He lies through his teeth about worrying about the deficit while shoveling every dollar he can to his state, even if it results in deficit spending. If his party needs him he is going to make sure that he extracts his pound of flesh for his state. Like many politicians, rather than representing his state as an equal to every other state at the federal level, he expects his state to be treated better than the other states. In his case, he will obstruct the Democrats or cooperate with the Republicans to get what he wants to assure a happy constituency and reelection.

    I would be willing to bet that many of his constituents are exactly the same way; they hate government debt and taxes but they want free money. I would be bet more that if you were to confront them with this they would ignore you or tell you that you are wrong.

  10. 10
    Jim says:

    @dr. bloor:

    The republic has always had its Ben Nelsons, and this is always how business has been done.

    Agreed, my beef is with the political media that labels anyone, especially someone who calls themselves a Democrat a deficit hawk/fiscal conservative because they want to cut taxes and/or aid to the poor, but are never so much as asked about defense spending, marginal tax increases, etc. I’ll say this much for Bayh, he did oppose the Bush tax cuts.

  11. 11
    inkadu says:

    All politicians rail against pork, unless its pork for their state.

    When it comes to election time pork gets translated into, “delivered for our state.” When we elect a junior senator, there are always concerned that “he won’t be able to do enough for our state.” This country is built on graft, and everyone agrees to it even if they are in denial about it.

    Lieberman was able to buy the votes of a free, once-a-day clinic staffed by volunteers. A VOLUNTEER RUN HEALTH CLINIC. How was Lieberman able to do this? Well, first, the director must have been the stupidest mother fucker on the planet. But secondly, Lieberman promised to get some funding for the health center. Even though Lieberman predictably proved to be an impediment to health care reform that would have made volunteer health clinics unnecessary.

    Money for me is always better than a solution for everybody.

  12. 12
    inkadu says:

    There’s been a drumbeat recently on the blogs attacking fiscal conservatives for tax cuts. Is this a new thing? It’s super obvious, yet I’d forgotten about.

    The political vocabulary has to change if we’re going to make progress. “Conservatives” are reactionary regressives. “Fiscal conservatives” want to drive the United States into default, reward the rich, and punish the poor. “Centrists” are really “conservatives.”

  13. 13
    donovong says:

    “Politician acts hypocritically, abandons ethics for self-aggrandizing theatrical stunt.” Yeah, THAT’S something new and different.

  14. 14
    PeakVT says:

    When a Republican or even a conservative Democrat says “fiscal conservative,” it is a dog whistle for “I won’t spend your money on those people.” Which sucks, because the two words make a catchy phrase.

  15. 15
    mr. whipple says:

    So, yes, the Medicaid bribe for Ben Nelson is a disgrace and shameful in so many ways. It is truly outrageous and a scathing indictment of our current system and the ridiculous hoops that have to be jumped through to get anything done in the Senate.

    Isn’t this pretty much how it’s always been done? An example, since LBJ has been talked about a lot recently:

    “It begins in 1957, with Johnson as Senate majority leader, engineering passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, a feat generally regarded as impossible until he did it.

    “To see Lyndon Johnson get that bill through, almost vote by vote,” said Pultizer Prize–winning LBJ biographer Robert Caro, “is to see not only legislative power but legislative genius.”

    One key to Johnson’s success was that he managed to link two completely unrelated issues: civil rights and dam construction in Hells Canyon in the Sawtooth Mountains of America’s far northwest. Western senators were eager for the dam, which would produce enormous amounts of electricity. For years the advocates of public power and private power interests had fought to determine whether the dams would be built by government or private companies.

    Those favoring public power were generally liberals from the Northwest states; they were liberal on civil rights as well, but they had no large numbers of African American voters in their states to answer to, so a vote against civil rights would not hurt them very much. LBJ brokered an agreement that traded some of their votes to support the southern, conservative position favoring a weak civil rights bill. In return, southerners would vote for public power at Hells Canyon.”

  16. 16
    WereBear says:

    @inkadu: Absolutely, we have a lot of lazy thinking still being banked on.

    The political vocabulary has to change if we’re going to make progress.

    I’m more and more thinking that this kind of delusional mental juggling is a syndrome. They all think the same crazy things; and are comfortable with it. There must be a template of some kind it is fitting.

  17. 17
    Anya says:

    @Max: I thought Obama was Rahm’s poppet, therefore, all roads lead to Rahm.

  18. 18

    @mr. whipple:

    Isn’t this pretty much how it’s always been done?

    Sure is. It’s like I said yesterday, Nelson can be bought. Most of them can be bought. This is how the GOP basically did whatever it liked in congress for years under Bush, buying votes from each other with pork barrel projects and tasty earmarks, and giving Bush whatever he wanted …. just about a veto-free environment. This is how the GOP racked up all that national debt while talking “conservatism” in front of the cameras.

    Bush had no worries. Anything that looked like a real problem, he just left “for the next president,” as as much as said that that was what he was doing.

    It was good times for Republicans.

  19. 19
    Bruce (formerly Steve S.) says:

    Somebody reconcile this for me: the righties mentioned above, plus this morning I saw John Kyl saying the same thing, are pimping the idea that Nelson was bribed by the White House to vote for the bill. Also floating around the rightosphere is this story, signed onto by 20 Republican senators, that Obama shook down Nelson, mafia style, to get him to support the bill. I suppose both these things, plus everything else they say, could be true. Somewhere.

  20. 20
    Xboxershorts says:

    Somewhere or sometime during the Reagan revolution, the concept of returning federal taxes BACK to the taxpayer in the form of federally mandated services became analogous to socialism. Evil and corrupting, the federal government saw fit to stop funding these socialist mandates.

    but they didn’t disband the mandates, they just stopped funding them.

    And the wars on foreign soil just kept on coming.

    And states are required by law to maintain these federal mandates with no or little federal funds. And all these federally mandated programs have grown and the States, all 50 of them now, are struggling to avoid bankruptcy.

    Why is returning federal taxpayer monies back to the taxpayer in the form of services considered some sort of socialist plot to destroy America?

  21. 21
    CalD says:

    I keep wondering what part of “Nebraska” don’t people get?

  22. 22
    calling all toasters says:

    It’s a big win all around– Nelson keeps his Senate seat, the bill passes, and no one ever has to take him seriously again. Well, the Beltway masturbators will, but they’ll moan his name a little less often.

  23. 23
    Just Some Fuckhead says:


    I keep wondering what part of “Nebraska” don’t people get?

    I get stuck on the “ska” part. In the conservative buttoned-down midwest? Really?

  24. 24
    slag says:

    There’s also the fact that practically every CBO score has taken pains to point out that the public option was expected–using the only evidence available to us–to reduce costs.

    I don’t bring this up to rehash the argument over the public option but only as a reminder that implementing a strong public option would have been a fiscally conservative thing to do. But our “fiscal conservatives” in the House and Senate wouldn’t hear of such a thing. Because that’s how “fiscal conservatives” roll.

  25. 25

    WASHINGTON — The White House and its Senate allies defended a final push for historic health care legislation Sunday as outflanked Republicans pledged a fight to the end. A dead-of-night vote neared in a frenzy one GOP lawmaker said lacked “legislative sanity.” Republican Sen. John McCain, President Barack Obama’s opponent in last year’s election, said there was probably nothing to keep Democrats from passing the bill by Christmas Eve.


    McCain is really pleased, though, because this insures him a long string of Sunday morning talk show appearances going well into next year.

  26. 26
    aimai says:

    Mr Whipple makes a great point. Its called Horsetrading. That’s what pissed people like me off about Reid’s whole approach to this bill, and in particular to people like Nelson. Reid and Obama refused to make *linkages* outside the bill–in other words, as far as we know, in order to get the votes of these assholes they kept offering to shave the bill down in ways that didn’t make sense for the bill or for health care. Perhaps they offered something like “support on your next project” but were refused? That’s also possible and we won’t hear about it for a long time.

    The really funny thing to me about the story that is going around about Obama threatening to pull offut air force base if he didn’t get Nelson’s vote is that both left and right would be cheering it–the right if it was Bush doing it to a recalcitrant Republican or Democrat, the left if it were Obama doing it to make the health care bill better. Like all things republican I don’t get the point they are trying to make–is it that Obama is too manly and effective as a hard knuckle negotiator? Because its a little late for them to try to reclaim the mantle of delicate, shrinking, violets after all the war mongering and the deaths that they have actually applauded.


  27. 27


    Well in that case, just consider it an advance on the money Nebraska gets the next time we give out federal assistance for hurricane preperation.

  28. 28
    kay says:


    I don’t know that it means anything.

    They expanded Medicaid eligibility to 133% of the poverty level. They guarantee all states full funding for two years.

    What Nelson did is name Nebraska specifically as getting 100% of the increased cost funded, beginning in 2017, but that guarantee is too far out in the future, given the nature of Congress. It’s unenforceable. The rest of the states “settled” for two years because a two year guarantee is realistic, and enforceable. They’ll all get that money.

    I think he was getting intense pressure from rural providers and state government, and gave them a guarantee he has no practical way of enforcing, unless he has a crystal ball into 2017.

  29. 29
    cleek says:

    Like all things republican I don’t get the point they are trying to make—is it that Obama is too manly and effective as a hard knuckle negotiator?

    it’s that Obama is a arrogant, ruthless, Chicago-style politician who lets nothing get in the way of his quest for power. not even the concerns of the honorable members of his own party can be allowed to get in the way of his ambitions.

    something like that.

    [note that you could swap out a few words and someone saying that about any president]

    shorter wingnuts: we hate that our guy isn’t in the White House.

  30. 30
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    Ya think it’s bad now, wait until we get to climate change legislation. At least in this current debate, everyone agrees that the health care system in America is totally broken, including most of the rightwingers I know. We just disagree on the way to fix it.

    With climate change, there is a huge percentage of Americans that believe it isn’t even happening or that if it is, God is doing it and there’s nothing we can do about it except stop killing fetuses and start praying more.

  31. 31
    El Cid says:

    If a particular ‘bribe’ could come without making the entire bill shittier, I wouldn’t mind at all, in context.

    It’s the part about ‘making life shittier for most Americans’ bit that really pisses me off, not the $1.1 billion for Nebraska, presuming it’s not $1.1 billion for the 400 Foot Tall Ben Nelson Statue Stimulus Project.

  32. 32
    kay says:

    @Brien Jackson:

    Unless it’s funded, I’m not sure it means anything. Nelson (assuming he’s still there in 2017) will still have to ask for and receive the extra money.
    They budgeted the following: a 2 year guarantee to cover state’s increased Medicaid costs for any increased enrollment. A 2.2 increase in CURRENT Medicaid enrollment funding.
    I think it all goes back for funding in 2017. Unless he GOT THE MONEY he’s got a promise with no money behind it. I don’t know how he got the money, because the amount he’ll need is predicated on the increase in enrollment, and he doesn’t know what that is further than the estimate, which is two years out.

  33. 33


    2017 is the 3rd year the full brunt of the bill will be in effect. Nelson got an extra year of federal funding for Nebraska as it relates to Medicaid expansion. Not really a big deal, and maybe even a good thing, on balance.

  34. 34
    aimai says:

    I’ve got no problem with any state getting more money for medicaid expansion–so long as they all get it. And I’ve even got no problem with Nelson bringing home more bacon to Nebraska than other Senators got for their states–what bugs the shit out of me is that he’s going to go home and *still* badmouth the legislative process, other democrats, and the health care bill and still demagogue medicaid when it comes to other state’s populations. Because there’s no quid pro quo that along with your bribe you keep your fucking mouth shut already about your deficit bona fides and how you are anti tax ‘n spend or whatever crap Nelson dishes out for the rubes in Nebraska. To me its more of the red state/blue state thing where we pay the taxes for their terrible social programs, they suck up our tax dollars and bitch about having to pay a percentage of their fair share.


  35. 35
    kay says:

    @Brien Jackson:

    I get that part, thanks, but the whole expansion funding language past the two year mark is “shall be determined”.

    Nebraska “shall be determined” according to the two year funded 100% formula.

    Is the money for Nebraska’s estimated increase in enrollment in that third year in the budget?

  36. 36


    Yeah, I see what you’re saying, and I can see where it’s sort of unseemly that one state gets funding for an extra year than everyone else. Still, “centrists” use the Senate’s impediments to force enough legitimately bad concessions from the majority, I guess I just can’t really get worked up over a relativey good concession only going to one state. Especially considering that it was such a small amount of money, if that’s what Nelson was willing to trade his vote for, I’m taking that deal before he has a chance to re-think it.

  37. 37


    As I understand it, the federal government is picking up the cost of the expansion in the first two years. This deal would have the fed covering Nebraska’s costs for a 3rd year on top of it. Beyond that, I’m pretty fuzzy on the details.

  38. 38
    someguy says:

    I’m disappointed that Nelson didn’t get a $10k per year subsidy for every Nebraskan. He had Reid on the ropes but couldn’t do any better. If this is the caliber of legislative extortion we’re going to get, we need to get some better Democrats.

    As for the Republicans on the morning shows… yeah, whatever. They’re talking big now but they’re so repulsive, they’re probably going to lose another 30 house seats and 10 Senate seats next time around. They can talk all they want. Just makes me wonder why the talk shows have these pipsqueaks on at all when the two major parties running the country are actually Centrist Dems and Conservative Dems.

  39. 39
    Bruce (formerly Steve S.) says:

    I don’t get the point they are trying to make—is it that Obama is too manly and effective as a hard knuckle negotiator?

    Conspiracy theorists of all stripes just skip the most logical step in the thought process; namely, even if I assume the worst about Obama (or whomever), does this formulation make any sense?

  40. 40

    Nelson, Joe Lieberman and several others should be taken out back and shot but that’s not the way we do things in America so it is up to the voters to do the metaphoric equivalent by tossing them out of office.

    So says this NJ editorial which blasts the HCR bill for a variety of perceived faults.

    But the way I see it is, Lieberman was dumped by his party and still had the votes in his state to support his reelection on what amounts to an independent bid. Nelson was reelected last time by something like 64% of his voters.

    So, no, it’s not the way we do things in America, except in blogspeakworld. And the problem doesn’t really lie with the Nelsons and the Liebermans of the government. It lies with the voters, who are deeply divided on big issues, and express those divisions by creating a government that is an expression of those divisions.

    Another big step down the road to making progress on this front is coming next summer and fall, in the form of the off year congressional elections. Are we (Dems) going to go for political reform, and try to get more progressive replacements for some of those troublesome members of congress in the primaries, or are we going to focus on saving as many seats as possible knowing that the following two years are going to be even harder than this year has been in the halls of congress?

    If I get to make the call, I will go for saving seats in this cycle, and working to be in a position to advance the cause in 2012 as we gain back some of the seats we will lose in 2010. Hopefully we can avoid a loss of our majority next year, but at this point I am not sure this is going to be possible unless jobs come back strong midyear.

  41. 41
    mk3872 says:

    “Fiscal Conservative” in an absolutely useless and vapid label that any politician in the U.S. today MUST attach to themselves, any way that they can.

    If they have to lie about, or occassionally vote for/against legislation that can be used as advertising to gain the label of “fiscal conservative”, then so be it.

    This is a GREAT job of selling the “idea” of “fiscal conservative” by the Heritage Foundation, Club for Growth and Grover Nordquist.

    With the power of FNC, Washington Times and Weekly Standard behind them, they are able to permeate the airwaves with these sorts of messages.

  42. 42
    Cat G says:

    You get legislation passed with coalitions..either and/or ones of ideology or convenience. You’ve got to get 535 people involved and NO ONE is the boss. Additional Medicaid money is not a bad idea, cause state’s are really hurting. And the money is going to health care for needy people, not missiles. The state disparity will get smoothed out. There’s a lot of good stuff in the bills, and we’ve got to start somewhere.

    I hope that Obama was willing to have someone offer Nelson a deal he could refuse. You need to have that ability in a president.

    Oh, and the old joke abt whores…everybody knows what Nelson is. It turned out we were just negotiating the price.

  43. 43
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    Jesus God. Pass a crappy unpopular bill now at all costs and then start working to make it better. Horse, cart, all that.

    Democratic slogan for 2010: We Can Do Better, Honest.

  44. 44
    TuiMel says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead: But everyone is going to LOVE it once it goes into effect. So don’t worry; be happy.

  45. 45
    Mal Carne says:

    “Pork”=money spent in other people’s congressional districts.

  46. 46
    JGabriel says:

    I thought this quote was quite telling:

    William Jacobsen (aka Col. Mustard) @ Legal Insurrection:

    The only ray of hope is that most of the provisions will not kick in until well after November 2010.

    It really does show how insincere and corrupt the GOP has become. They know that, even in its current bastardized form, once people experience universality (or close to it) and the other improvements in the bill, they won’t want to go back. So Republicans are glad voters won’t be able to experience most of the improvements until after the next election.

    I mean, if Republicans really thought the bill would hurt the Democrats, they’d want it to go into effect as soon as possible.


  47. 47
    Liberty60 says:


    This is why I can’t abide the conservative movement- not so much that they are too conservative, but that the very word is meaningless; they are fiscally conservative, yet support massive massive deficits- as long as they are fueled by defense spending, not social welfare spending. They are in favor of limited government, but cheer on datamining, warrantless wiretapping, illegal detentions, and so on.

    They don’t have any coherent worldview, just a random collection of applause lines. Sort of like a Rocky VII, they recycle stale cliches from something that once had meaning and end up making you hate the original for it.

  48. 48
    Sly says:

    Rescinding Obamacare needs to be the organizing theme of the 2010 election. And throwing out the bums who voted for it.


    That strategy worked out really well from 1938 through 2008 with Social Security, didn’t it? You guys should campaign on repealing the Reconstruction Amendments while you’re at it.

    Whenever I need to feel better about having naive people on the left, all it takes is one visit to a reactionary blog. Because they have SOOOOOOOO many more than we do.

  49. 49
    mnpundit says:

    Uh that’s what senators do. They are supposed to extort money for their states.

    The problem is that in Congress we have no one who represented the nation as a whole, just constituent parts.

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