Learning to Love Our Lobbyist Friends: We May Not Exactly Trust Special Interest Groups, but We Would Abolish Them at Our Own Peril
Allen, Frederick, The Saturday Evening Post
On New Year's Day, Congress finally, at the very last moment, passed the fiscal cliff legislation that saved the economy from free fall. Everyone on every side of the negotiations made sacrifices to make it happen. Or so it seemed. But one pharmaceutical company got wording stuck in the bill that will bring it hundreds of millions of dollars over the next couple of years.
The law ensures that Amgen, the world's largest biotechnology business, will have two years to sell its dialysis pill Sensipar without any limits on what Medicare has to pay for it, even though the fiscal cliff bill is supposed to save $4.9 billion over 10 years by reducing overpayments for dialysis drugs and treatments. Exempting Sensipar from those controls will cost Medicare as much as $500 million.
How did the company arrange such a windfall? The provision requested by Amgen was added to the final draft of the legislation by Senate staff members, according to published reports. Why? Amgen has no fewer than 74 lobbyists in Washington, including the former chiefs of staff of both Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Sen. Max Baucus. It has contributed more than $8 million to candidates and their political action committees since 2007. Those lobbyists had repeated meetings with senators' staffers in the fall. Critics contend that bowing to special interests is part of the reason for our current dilemma.
"Sadly, the lawmaker-lobbyist cabal has once again acted to serve their own financial interests; continuing to place patients at risk and passing the costs on to the taxpayer," Dennis J. Cotter, a health policy researcher in metropolitan Washington, D.C., told the Post.
Amgen is a very big lobbying presence in Washington, but there's nothing that special about it. Just about every business there is, from AAI Corporation to Zurich Financial, has its lobbyists prowling the halls of Congress, doing everything they can to serve their industries' purposes, sometimes at the expense of the greater good. So does just about every special interest group.
Lobbying is a huge business. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, there were 12,051 registered lobbyists in Washington in 2012, and they spent a total of $2.47 billion trying to get government officials to do their bidding. The biggest spender of all? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which forked out almost $96 million on lobbying, followed by the National Association of Realtors, $26 million. One of the top industry sectors? Health, which spent $365 million--more than 10 times as much as organized labor.
How can so much money flowing around the nation's capital not corrupt? It certainly does, and the revolving door between Congress and K Street, the main street of lobbying, is not just a myth. Almost two thirds of all lobbying, in dollars spent, involves former congressional staffers. Is such a situation excusable? Should it even be legal?
Absolutely. In fact, it's necessary. And even the founding fathers knew it. Our most revered, sacred law of all enshrines it. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution doesn't just guarantee freedom of speech and religion. It says, in full, thereof or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Those final words are what allows lobbying. As crucial as is our right to talk freely and worship freely, so is our right to present our concerns to Congress, and to "assemble" to do so--that is, to join forces as part of a special interest group. That's how government works. Lobbying is as much a part of what makes representative government tick as voting or town hall meetings.
Furthermore, lobbying has evolved over time from a shady and secretive business, where outright bribes were commonplace, to a heavily regulated one, where transparency rules and where the great majority of lobbyists are open and forthright about what they do and how much they spend and why. …