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Disclaimer: The author of this site maintained the campaign weblog of John Kline's opponent in the 2006 election, which made Congressman Kline a bit testy.

As with all blogs, review the facts carefully and draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Medicare Bamboozle: Part III

[Disclaimer: This post was first published on Coleen Rowley's campaign weblog.]

We've discussed the recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce ads praising John Kline and Mark Kennedy for their support of the Medicare prescription drug program, and scratched the surface of what truly awful legislation it is. One might well ask, how did Congress ever pass such a pork-laden giveaway for the pharmaceutical industry into law?

The answer lies in the Republican culture of corruption. Coleen is running on a platform of comprehensive ethics reform, which most everyone says they support. But in order to truly understand how official corruption in Washington affects our everyday lives, it helps to examine a real-life example in detail.

You couldn't ask for a better example than the Medicare Part D legislation.

Our story begins in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, November 22, 2003. 3:00 AM, to be exact. That's when Doc Hastings, R-WA, who was acting as Speaker Pro Tem of the U.S. House of Representatives, declared that debate on the prescription drug bill was over, and the time had come to vote. This was less than 26 hours after the bill had been released from the conference committee, much to the consternation of many Democrats, including Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who complained earlier in the proceedings (from the Congressional Record):

. . . under House rules, Mr. Speaker, all Members of this House, Democrats and Republicans, are supposed to have 3 days, 3 days to review any conference report so they can actually read what is in it so that they will know what, in fact, that they are voting on. It is obvious, as has been the case so many times over and over, that the Republican majority is choosing to ignore the rules of this House . . .

This was to no avail. At 3:00 AM on Saturday, November 22, Doc Hastings declared that "Members will have 15 minutes to record their votes." A November 23 Washington Post article describes what ensued:

The 2-hour-and-51-minute ordeal -- more than double the previous record -- saw Democrats savoring the possibility of their biggest victory of the Bush years -- an apparent 216 to 218 rejection of the $400 billion plan -- for almost an hour. But in that final hour, the president, jet-lagged from his flight home from Britain, phoned recalcitrant Republicans from the White House, and his secretary of health and human services, defying custom, jawboned members on the floor.

The full Post article is worth reading, but the full extent of Republican misdeeds wouldn't be known until weeks later, when Nick Smith of Michigan admitted that a member of the GOP leadership had effectively tried to bribe him into voting yes, and when that didn't work, resorted to threats instead. Smith later tried to recant, but the damage had already been done:

What little credibility Smith's retraction had back then was undone by the emergence of two pieces of evidence. The first was a tape-recording of a pre-recantation radio interview in which Smith very clearly described a "$100,000-plus" contribution to his son's campaign for Congress in exchange for his "yea" vote on the Medicare prescription bill. (Smith declined.) That meets the statutory definition of a bribe under United States Code, Title 18, Section 201, "Bribery of public officials and witnesses." The second piece of evidence was a story in the Washington Post that produced two witnesses—one of whom, Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., went on the record—who said they distinctly heard Smith say the bribe was offered by someone in the House leadership.

Okay, so far we have the Republican leadership breaking House rules, holding the vote open for nearly three hours (a record) to give time for President Bush and the GOP leaders to pressure reluctant Republicans, and an actual felony committed on the floor of Congress.

But wait, there's more! Even this staggering amount of corruption isn't sufficient to pass a bill this bad! Since Republican lawmakers still like to lay claim to the title "conservative", they need to show concern about the cost of something like the Medicare bill. And well they should have been concerned; official White House estimates put the cost at $400 billion over 10 years. That's a lot of money.

But what's more astounding is that the White House knew the $400 billion figure understated the true cost by more than 20 percent (emphasis mine):

The chief Medicare actuary, Richard S. Foster, told Congress on Wednesday that last June he provided the White House with data indicating that prescription drug legislation would cost 25 percent to 50 percent more than the Bush administration's public estimates. That information did not make its way to Congress for six more months.

. . .

In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Foster said he had struggled to preserve the independence and integrity of his office. It was his first public appearance since a furor erupted over his assertions that Mr. Scully threatened to fire him if he disclosed his cost estimates to Congress during debate on the Medicare bill.

The "Mr. Scully" referenced above is Thomas Scully, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who:

. . . received a waiver from ethics laws, thereby allowing him to represent the Bush administration in discussions about the new drug bill while negotiating employment with three lobbying firms and two investment firms that had major stakes in the legislation.

Note that the Bush administration explicitly acknowledged that Scully was engaging in unethical behavior by granting him an "ethics waiver". I guess once Scully had the waiver, he figured there was nothing to stop him from demanding that Foster choose between lying to Congress and losing his job.

But let's not focus solely on Mr. Scully and the transgressions of the Bush administration; lots of the people involved in drafting the Medicare bill jumped on the Big Pharma gravy train shortly after the legislation passed, strongly indicating that the interests of the American people were not foremost in their minds while writing the bill.

This is the problem in a nutshell. The Medicare prescription drug benefit was written by people who wanted to shove as much taxpayer money as possible into the gaping maw of Big Pharma, so that they could be rewarded with cushy jobs at lobbying firms, working with their former colleagues in Congress to shove even more taxpayer money into the gaping maw of Big Pharma. There are at least two known instances of threats or bribes in this story, including one member of Congress attempting to bribe another on the House floor. Rules were ignored, ethics were ignored, laws were ignored.

And the ones paying the price are the seniors falling into the 'donut hole' --- our parents and grandparents --- as well as the American taxpayer who has to subsidize exorbitantly priced drugs because a corrupt Congress explicitly prohibited Medicare from using market forces to bargain for lower costs.

This is just one example of what the culture of corruption has brought us. It is far from the only one. Fixing this problem will be at the top of Coleen Rowley's agenda when she goes to Congress.

And John Kline? We'll look at the role he played in the Medicare debacle in our final post on the topic.

This is part one of a four-part series on the Medicare Bill.  Make sure to read them all!
  1. The Chamber of Commerce and its support for Kline and Kennedy.
  2. The worst piece of legislation ever enacted.
  3. The Republican culture of corruption in microcosm.
  4. John Kline's bold stand and subsequent crumbling.

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