Saturday, October 17, 2009

Obama (re) declares war on lobbyists

It's on now. When the Baucus bill passed out of committee, it became clear that some form of health care reform will likely pass. That was the opening gong for lobbyists to start their final pushes to knock key cost control measures off of the end product -- the excise tax on expensive health care plans, the pending Sustainable Growth Rate cut to doctors' Medicare payments, the cuts in subsidies to Medicare Advantage plans, the tax on medical device makers, strong price control leverage for any public option, etc. etc.

The bogus and swiftly discredited (counter-swiftboated?) AHIP-commissioned study purporting to show that the Baucus bill will raise premiums was in turn a red cape to Democrats, who have gone out with gusto to paint the health insurance industry as public enemy #1. It is unlikely that AHIP is trying to prevent a reform bill from passing; they are rather trying to get what they can added in and taken out -- stiffer individual mandates, increased subsidies, no public option, no excise tax, weaker mimimum coverage standards. Give them all that, and reform is still worth doing -- insurance at least marginally worth having will still be made at least marginally affordable to most of those who now lack it. But the U.S. health care system will remain dysfunctional -- twice as expensive as that of other rich countries, riddled with coverage holes, wired for overtreatment. The battle now is about how eviscerated the final bill will be.

That is why Obama has returned to a major campaign theme: we can't reform our policies until we reform our politics. Here's how he put it on Jan. 30, 2008 in Denver:
we need to do more than turn the page on the failed Bush-Cheney policies; we have to turn the page on the politics that helped make those policies possible.

Lobbyists setting an agenda in Washington that feeds the inequality, insecurity, and instability in our economy.

Division and distraction that keeps us from coming together to deal with challenges like health care, and clean energy, and crumbling schools year after year after year.

Cronyism that gave us Katrina instead of competent government. And secrecy that made torture permissible and illegal wiretaps possible.

It's a politics that uses 9/11 to scare up votes; and fear and falsehoods to lead us into a war in Iraq that should've never been authorized and should've never been waged.
Compare his weekly address today:

This [rampant health care inflation] is the unsustainable path we’re on, and it’s the path the insurers want to keep us on. In fact, the insurance industry is rolling out the big guns and breaking open their massive war chest – to marshal their forces for one last fight to save the status quo. They’re filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest ads. They’re flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists and campaign contributions. And they’re funding studies designed to mislead the American people.

Of course, like clockwork, we’ve seen folks on cable television who know better, waving these industry-funded studies in the air. We’ve seen industry insiders – and their apologists – citing these studies as proof of claims that just aren’t true. They’ll claim that premiums will go up under reform; but they know that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that reforms will lower premiums in a new insurance exchange while offering consumer protections that will limit out-of-pocket costs and prevent discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. They’ll claim that you’ll have to pay more out of pocket; but they know that this is based on a study that willfully ignores whole sections of the bill, including tax credits and cost savings that will greatly benefit middle class families. Even the authors of one of these studies have now admitted publicly that the insurance companies actually asked them to do an incomplete job.

It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s bogus. And it’s all too familiar. Every time we get close to passing reform, the insurance companies produce these phony studies as a prescription and say, "Take one of these, and call us in a decade." Well, not this time.
Beyond slamming the most obvious target, Obama at the close broadened the scope and raised the stakes, framing the health reform bill as a test case for the functioning of American democracy:

Last November, the American people went to the polls in historic numbers and demanded change. They wanted a change in our policies; but they also sought a change in our politics: a politics that too often has fallen prey to the lobbyists and the special interests; that has fostered division and sustained the status quo. Passing health insurance reform is a great test of this proposition. Yes, it will make a profound and positive difference in the lives of the American people. But it also now represents something more: whether or not we as a nation are capable of tackling our toughest challenges, if we can serve the national interest despite the unrelenting efforts of the special interests; if we can still do big things in America.

I believe we can. I believe we will. And I urge every member of Congress to stand against the power plays and political ploys – and to stand up on behalf the American people who sent us to Washington to do their business.

Obama here is not only turning the spotlight on lobbyists just as they kick into high gear -- there's also a veiled threat to expose selected targets in Congress (Democrats, since there's no Republican votes except maybe Snowe's) who try to hold the final bill hostage to various giveaways.

It's been said by many that Obama needs to land a punch in a major domestic policy fight. Let's see specifically what he chooses to fight for as health care reform approaches the endgame.

1 comment:

  1. This couldn't come a moment too soon: Please add this to your list!

    Administration to remove lobbyists from government advisory panels
    By The Washington Post-Dan Eggen
    November 26, 2009

    Washington -- Hundreds, if not thousands, of lobbyists are likely to be ejected from federal advisory panels as part of a little-noticed initiative by the Obama administration to curb their influence in Washington, according to White House officials and lobbying experts.

    The new policy -- issued with little fanfare this fall by the White House ethics counsel -- may turn out to be the most far-reaching lobbying rule change so far from President Obama, who also has sought to restrict the ability of lobbyists to get jobs in his administration and to negotiate over stimulus contracts.

    The initiative is aimed at a system of advisory committees so vast that federal officials don't have exact numbers for its size; the most recent estimates tally nearly 1,000 panels with total membership exceeding 60,000 people.

    Under the policy, which is being phased in over the coming months, none of the more than 13,000 lobbyists in Washington could hold a seat on the committees, which advise agencies on trade rules, troop levels, environmental regulations, consumer protections and thousands of other government policies.

    "Some folks have developed a comfortable Beltway perch sitting on these boards while at the same time working as lobbyists to influence the government," said White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen, who disclosed the policy in a September blog posting on the White House Web site. "That is just the kind of special interest access that the president objects to."

    But lobbyists and many of the businesses they represent say they are being unfairly demonized by a White House intent on scoring political points with scandal-weary voters. They warn that the latest policy will severely handicap federal regulators, who rely heavily on advisory boards for technical advice and to serve as liaisons between government and industry.

    "It's taken me years to learn what the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is," said Robert Vastine, a lobbyist for the Coalition of Service Industries who also serves as chairman of a trade advisory board. "It's a whole different and specialized world. It is not easily obtained knowledge, and they are crippling themselves terribly by ruling out all registered lobbyists."

    Vastine is deeply familiar with the system because he helped create it as a top Senate Republican staffer during the early 1970s, when Congress approved the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The result, as Vastine puts it, is a "bureaucratic labyrinth" that has expanded to include virtually every aspect of the sprawling federal government, from the 179-member National Petroleum Council, which closely advises the Department of Energy, to the influential Defense Policy Board, which wielded enormous clout in the decision to go to war in Iraq.