As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, July 06, 2009

Health Care, Lobbyists, and Journalism

Happy to be on the opposing side of a lobbyist/access scandal rather than in the middle of it, today the Washington Post writes about the hundreds of former politicians and staffers-turned-lobbyists for the health care industry, fighting tooth and nail against systemic reform.

The nation's largest insurers, hospitals and medical groups have hired more than 350 former government staff members and retired members of Congress in hopes of influencing their old bosses and colleagues, according to an analysis of lobbying disclosures and other records.

The tactic is so widespread that three of every four major health-care firms have at least one former insider on their lobbying payrolls, according to The Washington Post's analysis.

Did that analysis come from the newsroom or the guest list for one of Katherine Weymouth's salons?

Nearly half of the insiders previously worked for the key committees and lawmakers, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), debating whether to adopt a public insurance option opposed by major industry groups. At least 10 others have been members of Congress, such as former House majority leaders Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), both of whom represent a New Jersey pharmaceutical firm.

The hirings are part of a record-breaking influence campaign by the health-care industry, which is spending more than $1.4 million a day on lobbying in the current fight, according to disclosure records. And even in a city where lobbying is a part of life, the scale of the effort has drawn attention. For example, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) doubled its spending to nearly $7 million in the first quarter of 2009, followed by Pfizer, with more than $6 million.

This has turned lobbying sessions in the major committees into office reunions, where former staffer get together with the politicians for whom they once worked. It begs the question about those pay-to-play sessions: why would any health care company want to pay up to $250,000 for access to the lawmakers making the biggest decisions on health care, when they all have people on their lobbying staff who already know how that lawmaker takes their coffee, and can surely use the knowledge gained through work experience on Capitol Hill to further their employer's agenda? Aside from the unseemliness of it all, the "salon" idea seems like another bad business model.

The use of insiders who move from politics to K Street has a damaging effect on the whole debate, using the journalist/source model as an interesting parallel:

Suppressing your instinct to trust a former chief of staff and legislative director is a hard thing to do. Refusing to return the calls of favored staffers and colleagues goes against every social grain in our bodies. It should be easy to separate professional responsibilities and personal feelings. But it isn't.

Journalists consistently use this to our advantage: When you hear that someone is well-sourced, it generally means they have good personal relationships that make it more likely that insiders will tell them things. A big part of the job is leveraging social pressures to gain access to protected information. And, somewhat amazingly, it works. But the relationship between a journalist and a longtime source is nothing compared to the relationship between a senator and a longtime staffer. One of the secrets about lobbying in Washington is that money doesn't buy access. It buys people who already have access. And that makes it much more insidious.

Relating this to the pay-for-play scheme, I think we can surmise why corporate insiders would use the media as a pass-through for access, whether it's The Washington Post or The Atlantic (that's quite a good article from Zachary Roth about their long history of corporate-sponsored "salons"). The question lies with who is being bought - the politicians, the lobbyists, or the media itself. I would argue the latter. By facilitating the relationship, they become compromised within it. They start to hedge a bit. They adopt a worldview that aligns pretty perfectly with the forces of the status quo on which they are supposed to report. They interweave themselves into the system and become partners within it. And the establishment thus speaks with one voice.

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