Dick Gephardt's Spectacular Sellout
When I mentioned Gephardt's new contract with NAPEO during an interview, one prominent labor lawyer paused before saying, "Oh, God. That's kind of creepy." A spokesperson for NAPEO declined to discuss concerns raised by labor about PEOs, but NAPEO's executive vice president, Milan Yager, told The Nation in a subsequent interview that his industry shares goals with the labor movement, such as workplace safety, benefits and compliance with employment law. With regard to Gephardt, Yager offered a glowing review. "He is a man of incredible credibility and ethics and is well regarded in this city," he said, adding that NAPEO was "looking for someone to open doors and help us establish a dialogue [with labor], and there's no better person than Dick Gephardt."
The area where Gephardt has provided his new paymasters the broadest range of services has been healthcare. Lobbying is a patchwork of tasks, as James Thurber, a professor at American University, explained in a recent interview. Most of them require no registration, like marketing; running associations and nonprofits; doing grassroots, toproots and astroturfing; serving as media experts; and joining think tanks. "The $3.1 billion that's recorded spent by federal registered lobbyists is just the tip of the iceberg," Thurber said, before estimating that as many as 90,000 people are involved in Washington's advocacy business.While many firms will contract and subcontract to cover these responsibilities, Gephardt's has served as a one-stop shop, providing all these services to clients in the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.
With Tom Daschle, Gephardt has advised UnitedHealth Group, one of America's largest private insurers, which has waged a strong campaign against a public option. Since 2007 Gephardt has served on the advisory board of Extend Health, another insurance company, graduating to the board of directors earlier this year. However, his biggest involvement has been with the pharmaceutical industry.
In addition to a large lobbying contract with the Medicines Company, Gephardt serves as chair of the Council for American Medical Innovation (CAMI), formed by and affiliated with PhRMA. It debuted in March, and in this capacity he has hired his own firm to lobby for the organization, to push "the innovation agenda," according to lobbying reports. The phrase is lobby-speak for attempts by the pharmaceutical industry to extend patents and block cheaper generic drugs from the market. On CAMI's behalf, Gephardt has jetted around the country, participating in forums and giving speeches. Before CAMI's founding, he was doing similar work directly for PhRMA, like attending last December's "Best and Brightest" forum in Philadelphia, where he and two prominent Pennsylvania politicians called for a federal "bailout for the pharmaceutical industry." On its website, Gephardt Group's Government Affairs division describes its work for CAMI as a "success story," claiming "our firm identified and recruited members to form a council...developing public forums and providing Mr. Gephardt's participation as a spokesperson and expert."
In the role of expert, Gephardt told the New York Times in April--before the healthcare battle had even commenced--that universal healthcare legislation was dead for the year and that Democrats should instead try for incremental reform. The article appeared just days after its author had moderated a panel discussion on healthcare reform that Gephardt and executives from several of his lobbying clients participated in.
When I first contacted his firm to set up an interview in late July, I was told that Gephardt's schedule was "unfortunately pretty booked up in the mad rush before recess." With all the lobbying he's been up to, this was hardly a surprise. In fact, the past few years have been one long, mad rush, really: since registering its first client in March 2007, Gephardt Group has consistently padded its cash haul quarter to quarter, pulling in $2.4 million from January to June this year alone--50 percent more than it made during all of 2008. More, these figures represent a fraction of the firm's earnings, since only its twenty-seven federally registered clients are disclosed in lobbying reports, leaving unreported the cash made from advocacy and advisory services provided to other customers.
Taken as a whole, Gephardt's success represents two distinct problems. For Democrats, it raises the legitimate question of whether his ideological shift from progressive populist to big business champion is indicative of where the entire party is headed after two successive electoral victories. For Washington, it exposes the rot at the core and the insidious manner in which Gephardt has harnessed his media-anointed, colleague-respected role as an expert on issues of labor and universal healthcare to work against reforms for both.
While it is well within Gephardt's rights to make money representing every anti-labor, anti-environmental, anti-universal healthcare client he can find, the former Congressman cannot have it both ways. Neither can the Democratic Party. In 2006 the top issue for voters was Washington's "culture of corruption," epitomized by Tom DeLay's K Street Project and Jack Abramoff's illegal excesses. Then, as in the 2008 campaign, Democrats were happy to decry the influence of lobbyists and special interests at every turn. As an electoral strategy, it worked brilliantly, but there has been little real reform to match the rhetoric. So it is hardly surprising that men like Gephardt continue to be welcome in polite progressive company, to be treated as statesmen by the media and their Congressional colleagues, and to serve as ostensibly neutral experts on issues they are heavily invested in on behalf of their new employers. Progressives would be fooling themselves to think the Gephardts of the Beltway are any different from their Republican predecessors. In fact, when it comes to cynically exploiting his reputation to profit his new employers, Gephardt is worse.