Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ben Nelson: A Man of the People?

insurance company

As Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) marks his line of opposition to a public insurance plan in the Democrats’ health reform bill, it’s worth noting that no industry has given more to Nelson’s congressional career than the insurers. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions, insurance companies have donated nearly $1.3 million to Nelson over the last decade — roughly 50 percent more than the second-ranking industry, lawyers.

From a regional perspective this makes sense. Like Connecticut, Nebraska is home to a high concentration of insurance companies, boasting the headquarters of Mutual of Omaha Health Plans, Physicians Mutual and Continental General, to name a few. Before entering politics, Nelson himself was the president of the Central National Insurance Company of Omaha.

So in the face of a public-plan proposal that would threaten the profits of private insurers, he’s protecting the industry that made him wealthy and showers him with tons of campaign cash. Easy enough, right?

If only it were so neat and clean.

Nelson’s decision to protect one of Nebraska’s largest economic engines is neither surprising nor uncommon, and lawmakers much more liberal than Nelson have built entire careers on that strategy. Sometimes the regional protectionism is a boon to local industry; sometimes it results in a bust. But whichever direction the insurance industry is headed, you can bet that a vote for a proposal harming local companies would do little to win Nelson support at the ballot box when he’s up for reelection in 2012.

The dilemma facing Democratic leaders — on health care, climate change, finance regulation, everything — is how to pass the strong industry reforms they prefer and still keep congressional seats in the districts where those industries are most entrenched.

The charge against Nelson will be that he’s putting corporations above the people. The deeper problem, though, is that in Nebraska — as in in many other parts of the country — they’re largely one in the same.