Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Wednesday, September 10, 2003  

You've heard the name, but do you really know what K Street is? Well, I didn't. Not until I read Nicholas Confessore's "Welcome to the Machine," that is. In terms of creepy news you'll hear about the President, push this one up near the top.

But there's one confirmation hearing you won't hear much about. It's convened every Tuesday morning by Rick Santorum, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, in the privacy of a Capitol Hill conference room, for a handpicked group of two dozen or so Republican lobbyists. Occasionally, one or two other senators or a representative from the White House will attend. Democrats are not invited, and neither is the press.

The chief purpose of these gatherings is to discuss jobs--specifically, the top one or two positions at the biggest and most important industry trade associations and corporate offices centered around Washington's K Street, a canyon of nondescript office buildings a few blocks north of the White House that is to influence-peddling what Wall Street is to finance. In the past, those people were about as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, a practice that ensured K Street firms would have clout no matter which party was in power. But beginning with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and accelerating in 2001, when George W. Bush became president, the GOP has made a determined effort to undermine the bipartisan complexion of K Street.

I know, I know, more naive lefties freaked out about the sausage-factory of politics, right? Could be. The nature of naivete is that one isn't aware of it. So yawn and go on to Atrios if you've heard it all before. Me, I was shocked. I'm going to break with tradition here and just paste in a big whack of text. After that, you should go read the article in toto.

To see how effective this machine can be, one need only compare the Bush administration's current push to reform Medicare with Bill Clinton's 1993 attempt to pass universal health insurance. Both set out to enact revolutionary changes in the nation's health-care system. And by most measures, Clinton would have seemed more likely to succeed, having staked his presidential campaign on the popular issue at a time when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. By contrast, Bush rarely mentioned Medicare during his campaign, and enjoys much slimmer majorities in Congress. Furthermore, although his prescription-drug benefit is popular, Bush's stated goal of moving more seniors into private health plans is most definitely not. Yet where Clinton's plan met an ignominious death, Bush's appears headed for speedy passage.

There were, of course, many reasons why Clinton failed, from mishandling relations with congressional leaders to the perceived insularity and arrogance of the task force of policy wonks Hillary Clinton assembled to tackle the challenge of achieving universal health care. But another major obstacle was the business and health-care interests on K Street. Clinton worked to win their backing. Among other things, his plan would have capped employer contributions to workers' health insurance at a level far below what many large companies, like General Motors and Kodak, were already paying to their employees' health plans, saving the companies billions of dollars. But some of those firms nevertheless denounced Clinton's plan after it was unveiled, rightly believing that they could bid up the price of their support even more. Meanwhile, conservative activists, eager to deny a new Democratic president his first major political victory, worked to convince business lobbyists that they would gain more by opposing Clinton than by supporting him. As more and more K Street lobbies abandoned Clinton, the plan went down to defeat.

Bush has taken a different approach. Instead of convening policy wonks to solve a problem, he issued a price tag and a political goal: Set Medicare on the road to privatization. When legislators from both parties balked at his initial proposal to offer more generous drug benefits to seniors who left Medicare for private plans, Bush dropped it--but retained incentives to lure seniors into the private market. What he didn't have to do was fight K Street, because the lobbyists were already tamed. Those health-care interests that had doubts about Bush's plan have been successfully pressured to keep quiet. Most of the rest have given Bush their full support.

A good example is the pharmaceutical industry. Drug companies have a natural affinity for the GOP's effort to move seniors into private plans, because if Medicare were to begin providing prescription drugs, its bargaining power could drive down drug prices. But over the past few years, Republican leaders have carefully cultivated and cajoled the industry. The upper ranks of its Washington trade group, PhRMA, are stocked with former aides to powerful Republicans, and its political behavior reflects it: The industry, which gave roughly evenly during the fight over Clinton's health-care plan, now contributes 80 percent of its money to Republicans. PhRMA has essentially become an extension of the GOP. It supported Bush's plan with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign even before the plan had been finalized and made public, and continued its support even as Bush compromised in ways that went against the drug industry's interests. By contrast, large corporations waited to see what Clinton's plan looked like and then haggled over its details, while health-care companies funded the famous "Harry and Louise" ads that eventually helped sink it.

Bush's Medicare legislation could still stall or get watered down. But the fact that the White House and the GOP have pushed it so far, so fast, regardless of the risk and downside, hints not only at the power of an organized K Street, but at the political end to which it is being directed. For years, conservatives have tried and, mostly, failed to significantly reduce the size of the federal government. The large entitlement programs in particular command too much public support to be cut, let alone abolished. But by co-opting K Street, conservatives can do the next best thing--convert public programs like Medicare into a form of private political spoils. As a government program, Medicare is run by civil servants and controlled by elected officials of both parties. Bush's legislation creates an avenue to wean people from Medicare and into the private sector--or, at least, a version of the private sector. For under the GOP plan, the medical insurance industry would gradually become a captive of Washington, living off the business steered to it by the government but dependent on its Beltway lobbyists--themselves Republican surrogates--to maintain this stream of wealth. Over time, private insurers would grow to resemble the defense sector: closely entwined with government, a revolving door for Republican officials, and vastly supportive, politically and financially, of the GOP. Republicans are thus engineering a tectonic political shift in two phases. First, move the party to K Street. Then move the government there, too.

This is just the warm-up. Go read the article for the complete picture.

posted by Jeff | 7:54 PM |
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