Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pay to Play Is Washington's Sport of Kings

by: Michael Winship

t r u t h o u t | Perspective

01 August 2009



As we marvel over the depths of hypocrisy and greed

currently plumbed in the health care reform debate,

it may help to remember that even Honest Abe Lincoln

had his share of tainted colleagues, one of the most

notorious of whom was his first Secretary of War Simon Cameron.


According to Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of

Rivals," when Lincoln asked radical Republican

Thaddeus Stevens how corrupt Cameron was, Stevens

paused and replied, "I don't think he would steal a

red hot stove." When Cameron objected, Stevens

allowed that maybe he was wrong - implying that the

cabinet secretary would steal a hot stove.


Cameron resigned after less than a year in office,

plagued by allegations of war profiteering and

overall ineptitude. He's largely forgotten now, but

something he supposedly said is immortalized in the

lexicon of famous sayings about money and

government. "An honest politician," he declared, "is

one who when he is bought, stays bought."


The giants of the health care industry fighting

legitimate reform will soon discover whether all the

money they've spent on lobbying has worked yet again

and which of the politicians they have showered with

campaign contributions will toe the line and stay

bought, thwarting the desires of the majority of the American people.


This week, the Center for Responsive Politics

reported that in the second quarter of this year

alone, the pharmaceuticals and health product

industries spent $67,959,095 on lobbying, and the

insurance industry $39,760,477. Another $25,552,088

was spent by lobbyists for hospitals and nursing

homes. That's a total of $133,271,660 in just three

months, and that's not even counting the lobbying

money spent to fight health care reform by

professional associations like the US Chamber of Commerce.


Just to further roil your ire, comes news from

McAllen, Texas, reported in the July 30 New York

Times: "One of the largest sources of campaign

contributions to Senate Democrats during this year's

health care debate is a physician-owned hospital in

one of the country's poorest regions that has sought

to soften measures that could choke its rapid

growth. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee

collected nearly $500,000 at a reception here on

March 30, mostly from physicians and others

affiliated with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance,

financial disclosure records show."


A June article in The New Yorker magazine painted a

devastating portrait of the sky-high costs of

physician-owned hospitals in the McAllen area and

President Obama has cited it often. But money talks,

and the Times notes, "Thus far, physician-owned

hospitals have been insulated from some of the most

onerous potential restrictions in the health care

legislation moving through Congress."


Business as usual amongst the dough-driven denizens

of Washington, DC, where they may as well replace

the national anthem with Randy Newman's "It's Money

that I Love," and pay to play is the sport of kings.


Anything and anybody are up for sale in the capital.

You'll recall the story in early July about the

intimate dinner party Washington Post publisher

Katharine Weymouth was planning. Her soiree would

have brought the paper's reporters and editors

covering health care reform together with officials

from the White House and members of Congress.


But she also invited CEO's and lobbyists - at

$25,000 a pop, or a quarter of a million if they

wanted to underwrite a series of these intimate

salons. The invitation offered, "An exclusive

opportunity to participate in the health care reform

debate among the select few who will actually get it done."


The dinner was scrapped when The Washington Post

invitation leaked to the press. But such exclusive

events where the elite meet to eat - for a price -

are standard operating procedure in DC. The

Economist magazine and The Wall Street Journal have

hosted intimate salons. Atlantic Media, publisher of

The Atlantic magazine and National Journal, among

other publications, has been holding off-the-record,

get-togethers for the last six years, with such

corporate sponsors as Microsoft, General Electric,

Citigroup, Allstate Insurance and the health care giant AstraZeneca.


Atlantic Media is now taking it one step further,

moving their exclusive party to the Internet, where

National Journal has announced a new "policy-

oriented" web site called 3121, named after the

phone extension for the US Capitol switchboard. It's

exclusively for members of Congress and their

staffs. Well, almost exclusively.


I can't log onto it - and neither can you, assuming

you're not a senator, representative, or somebody

who works for one. But guess what? If you're a

lobbyist, you can buy your way in. The web site's

marketing kit promises that you'll be able to "build

connections and start a valuable conversation with a

targeted group of some of the most powerful people

in the political world."


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for a mere $295,000, you

can be 3121's "Premier Promotional" sponsor. That

means you get, quote, "exclusive rights to all

advertising on 3121 from site launch in September"

through the end of the year. You'll also be invited

to the web site's launch party and what they're

calling "Innovation Happy Hours," so order your hats and noisemakers now.


What's that you say? You can't afford nearly

$300,000? Tell you what I'm gonna do. For a mere

$95,000 you can buy what they're calling a "Research

and Education" package that gives you a sneak

preview of 3121 and access to Capitol Hill insiders

helping out with the web design and learning how to use it.


At least if you buy into 3121 you know the web site

stays bought, like Simon Cameron's definition of an

honest politician. For sheer, unmitigated chutzpah,

I give you the American Conservative Union (ACU),

prostituting its vaunted philosophical purity in

pursuit of filthy lucre.


It seems FedEx, the package delivery

megacorporation, is facing a change in law that may

hurt its competitive advantage over United Parcel

Service. Legislation pending in Congress would level

the playing field.


As columnist Thomas Frank explained in The Wall

Street Journal, "Employees of UPS are covered by one

labor law - the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)

- while employees of FedEx are governed by a

different one, a law that makes it much harder for

them to organize a union. Lots of UPS's employees

are organized; few of FedEx's are."


As Frank wrote, the idea that Congress might give

FedEx employees "more of a chance to have a say

about work conditions" ruffled the company's

feathers. Enter the American Conservative Union -

which seeks to be "the conservative voice in

Washington," according to its web site - and which

said it would back FedEx's opposition to the

legislation with direct mail, email and phone

campaigns, radio ads and the creation of op-ed and

other articles by ACU president David Keene and

members of its board.


The ACU said it would only charge FedEx, oh, say,

somewhere between two and three million dollars,

maybe up to $3.4 million, for its services. FedEx

refused to sign for the package. So without batting

an eye, the ACU switched its allegiance to UPS,

accusing FedEx of fighting dirty. How brave, how

principled. How corrupt.


Summer is no time to be in Washington, the sun and

humidity so oppressive that someone once described

the sensation as akin to living inside the mouth of

a very large dog. But it's not the heat creating the

rancid aroma rising from the city. It's the panting

exhaust created by the pursuit of money, regardless

of country or party or philosophy. It's money that

they love, and nothing will change until we disable

the ka-ching of the giant Washington cash register

and use the money to buy the pay to players a one-

way bus ticket out of town.



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