The corruptions of Washington are hidden in plain sight. It’s no secret that there’s a pay-to-play ethos that links legislators, contributors and lobbyists, and results in legislation more attuned to corporate interests than the public’s. This, unfortunately, is not scandalous; it is SOP. Yet once in a while the hogs of Washington outdo themselves–as they have done in the writing of the Medicare and energy bills.
With the Medicare legislation, the White House and the Republican leaders of Congress (aided by two Senate Democrats, Max Baucus and John Breaux) produced a measure that grants seniors a spotty prescription drug benefit while rewarding two of the GOP’s most generous supporters: the pharmaceutical industry and the health insurance industry. The bill inhibits the reimportation of more affordable drugs from Canada and blocks the federal government from using its purchasing power to negotiate deep discounts for prescription drugs. Why prevent the government from using marketplace forces to save money? To help the pharmaceutical firms, already quite profitable, make even more money. Drug manufacturers stand to gain about $139 billion in extra profits over eight years from the $400 billion Medicare act, and the bill puts no pressure on them to lower the cost of their products. The health insurance industry could reap an extra $12 billion a year because of provisions that would permit a partial privatization of Medicare in some areas of the country. Could Congress and the White House concoct legislation creating a drug benefit without adding in goodies for their corporate benefactors? Do pigs enjoy rolling in mud? It’s no coincidence that the drug manufacturers fared so well after dispensing $60 million in political contributions since 2000 and spending $37.7 million in lobbying in only the first six months of 2003. Putting down $100 million to bring in more than $100 billion–now that’s return on investment.
The energy bill went even further in terms of rewarding patrons. It would have doled out billions in tax breaks–or corporate welfare–to traditional energy companies, dwarfing the amounts reserved for renewable energy and energy efficiency. The nuclear energy industry would have bagged about $6 billion in tax credits. Ethanol producers in the Midwest were richly awarded. The legislation eased clean air rules for utilities (medical experts predict hundreds of thousands of additional asthma attacks a year as a result). It also weakened regulations governing the mergers of utilities and repealed the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which shielded consumers and investors from risky, Enron-like business decisions made by utilities. And it protected manufacturers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that has contaminated drinking water in many states, from lawsuits. As the Washington Post noted, the energy bill handed out billions in assistance to firms headed by at least twenty-two executives and their spouses who are either Pioneers or Rangers for Bush’s re-election campaign. Pioneers rustle up $100,000 for the campaign; Rangers pledge to collect $200,000.
The Medicare bill, with the support of a small but decisive number of Senate Democrats and the backing of AARP, passed; the energy bill failed by two votes in the Senate, though Republicans will probably try to resurrect it when senators return to Washington in January. But both pieces of legislation tell the same ugly story. In the Washington of George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Bill Frist, industry–that is, corporate patrons–comes first. And too many Democrats are accomplices. This year in Congress did see a few encouraging moments: The Democrats vigorously opposed several of Bush’s right-wing judicial nominees, and Republicans and Democrats joined to defeat the White House-backed effort to loosen rules on media ownership. But far too often the public interest was shoved aside for the benefit of private interests. No news flash there. But the best response is not there-they-go-again cynicism but outrage and opposition. Note to AARP members: Rise up!