Pay to Play Is Washington's Sport of Kings

Saturday, 01 August 2009 07:59 By Michael Winship, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

Pay to Play Is Washington
(Photo: Getty)

    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 soirée 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.

Last modified on Saturday, 01 August 2009 10:35