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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Working in Washington

If you have been brought here by an email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, you need to know that it is a fraud. I did not write the email. For more information on it go here.It looks this morning as if Gary Trudeau got the email, too.

If Barack Obama is going to secure the passage of a sweeping progressive agenda, including serious health care reform, a cap and trade program, some huge new infrastructure projects, and (very possibly) big new job creation programs if unemployment, as seems likely, remains very high, then the political culture of Washington will have to undergo some significant changes. The media can help provoke such changes by bringing current practices to light. I don't spend much time listening to cable news (although I do try to catch a little talk radio every day, just to hear what's happening in the Republicanosphere), but I fortunately discovered this clip, in which Rachel Maddow discusses the financial status of Congressman Joe Ross or Arkansas at some length, the other day. Maddow is emerging as the Drew Pearson of our time, although her sources are not nearly as good as yet, and the story explained why Ross, a prominent Blue Dog Democrat, is so opposed to the public health care option. Ross owned a pharmacy in his home town, and two years ago, he sold the building and the right to operate the pharmacy to USA Drug, a drugstore chain, for a price of almost half a million, and half a million more made up of various rights fees and a consulting contract that his wife signed with them as well. This is, I have no doubt, not a unique situation, and we must hope that in today's anarchic media, popular outlets will become more and more adept at bringing such arrangements to light. (For more on the source of Representative Ross's views, look here--a very interesting site on southern politics.)

Thirty years ago I heard Barney Frank, who was just beginning his political career as a Massachusetts state legislator, talk about the problem of campaign money in politics. The salary of the Governor of Massachusetts, he noted, was about $50,000 (actually might have been even less), while a gubernatorial campaign cost about half a million. "Why don't we pay for the campaign and let corporations pay his salary?" he asked. "We'd have a bigger piece of him!" Things, of course, have gotten much worse since then--campaigns have gotten more expensive and it looks very likely that the Supreme Court is about to strike down the most recent bipartisan attempt to curtail special interest spending. Today, however, I'd like to discuss a different kind of problem in our politics today--one involving the career paths of politicians.

Let's imagine that you are a man, or woman, who became interested in public policy early in life. Whatever your particular views, you enjoy the nuts and bolts of the American system, and your ego is healthy enough (or should I say unhealthy enough?) to want to feel that you are having an important impact. Coming to Washington at a young age, you are seduced by the beauty of its historic buildings and its political buzz--although if you have arrived in the last forty years you have also been intimidated by the enormous cost of living there without a very long commute. Eventually you discover that there are two ways in which you become a mover and shaker.

In option one, you will spend your days being led around by your handlers, rather like a prize bull, listening to the widest possible variety of outraged or ardent Americans pushing their particular cause. While you will enjoy some of these encounters far more than others, you will have to be unvaryingly polite. You will fly to and from some other part of the country on almost every weekend, where your days will be similar to those spent in Washington during the week, except that you will spend more time traveling. Your finances will be known in every detail to the public. You will spend a great deal of time raising money. You will depend almost entirely on subordinates to provide you with actual knowledge about legislation in which you are interested. If you are a Republican, you will learn that any deviation from the party line--increasingly enforced by ignorant demagogues broadcasting for hours every day--is likely to be punished by the loss of your job. It is no wonder, obviously, that such a life might make a roll in the hay with a more or less anonymous member of the opposite sex appealing, but should such become known, your career will be at an end.

Now let's look at option 2. In this case you will live in Washington full time, going out of town only for working vacations in expensive resorts. Your salary will be private, and at least ten times as much as in option 1. Rather than having to raise money, you will help dispense it. You'll live in a prime Washington location. You will have all the time you need not only to study the details of legislation in which you are interested, but also to help draft it. You won't have to see anyone that you don't want to see, and the public will probably have no idea that you exist. But you will see your work reflected in dozens of pieces of legislation of tremendous import to millions of Americans. You will probably have to give up any ideas that you cherished in your youth about the public good--but at least, in comparison to option one, you won't have to pretend that you haven't given them up.

The job of option one, in today's America, is that of an elected Senator or Representative. The job of option 2 is that of a lobbyist. And can anyone be surprised that option 1 has become a stepping stone to option 2, rather than the reverse? Thus, two former leaders of the Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives--Dick Gephardt and Dick Armey--are now busily plying their trade as lobbyists. Gephardt, who actually ran for President on a platform of universal health care coverage, now opposes it. Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader who would have become Health and Human Services Secretary but for some financial indiscretions, is also working very hard for the health care industry. Bob Dole has had a remunerative post-Senatorial career. In this respect as in so many others, Ted Kennedy looks like the last of a dying breed, the legislator who (like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, Emmanuel Cellar, and so many others from the past) simply can't imagine being anything else. And it is obviously no coincidence that his idealism was backed by inherited wealth, and that he faced only one serious challenge in 46 years in the Senate.

In her report on Representative Ross, Maddow noted that liberal Democrats are organizing a primary campaign against him. Democrats showed in 2008 that they could out-organized the Republicans nationwide and win the Presidency fairly handily by appealing to the interests of less well-off Americans. Delivering for those Americans, however, is turning out to be much, much harder. It will require the same kind of organization on a sustained basis. It will require the courage to turn down "compromise" legislation which will not, in fact, improve the lives of ordinary Americans at all, like the Baucus health care bill. And it will require time, which the President's rhetorical skills will have to buy. I refuse to believe that any of this is impossible, but it will be extremely difficult.

The modern United States is largely the creation of two bursts of legislative activity--the first beginning in 1933 and ending around 1945 with the GI Bill, and the second in 1964-5. The first was possible because of the catastrophic situation into which we had fallen--far worse, we must keep in mind, than what we face right now--and the second owed a great deal to an outpouring of grief over the death of John F. Kennedy, an opportunity which Lyndon Johnson seized to pass Medicare, two civil rights bills, and much more. The present moment can't be compared to either of those. Any victories over the next year will be dearly won, through hard-fought battles. If in fact the Democrats can actually gain seats at the next election--and perhaps even replace a few Blue Dogs like Congressman Ross with genuine progressives--the log jam could begin to break during the next two years. That is an optimistic scenario, but not, I think, an impossible one.


Unknown said...

If you have not done so, I suggest you watch the continuing series by Sen. Bernie Sanders published by Brave New Films. He's a pip. We need more representatives like him in DC.

Yes, it was the infamous letter published in your name that brought me originally to your site. It was published on the forum of the Pensacola News Journal by one of our local wackos but quickly refuted. Keep up the good fight.

alohamac said...

I saw Michael Moore last night on Larry King show saying more less the same thing. Shorten election cycle, give limited but free TV time to canidates, and publically finance elections. Ban outside money.

Joe the Capitalist said...

I read with amusement one of your earlier blogs:
"The US government already runs two health care systems, Medicare and the Veterans Administration system. Both are extraordinarily cheaper than privately provided care."
It is foolish to believe that government subsidized organizations are cheaper. They are propped up by a strategy of ever-increasing deficit spending which will ultimately increase inflation.
If you want cheaper, open up true free market competition accross state lines. Capitalism is what made this country successful in the first place, it's time to get back to the basics.

Anonymous said...

I have indeed arrived here due to 'that email' which I forwarded to my own history professor who directed me here. I do not have any insurance horror stories to share and am grateful for having had good insurance through my husband's various jobs. We still live with a vague sense of fear about "what if we lose our job and insurance"? I believe that things will work out just fine and changes are going to happen. I just wanted to say thank you for your blog and that I am glad to be able to continue learning.

Antiquated Tory said...

I am starting to wonder if Obama is really capable of pushing a progressive agenda, that is if his agenda was ever that progressive in the first place. I'm starting to think his administration seriously dropped the ball on financial regulatory reform, due to his instinct to maintain as much consensus as possible. He is not a President who is that interested in radical solutions. Did he really reject the Wyden-Bennett bill because eliminating employer-based insurance was "too radical?" It didn't even have a public plan!

Moms Hugs (aka Eve) said...

David, could it be your last name was just too tempting for whomever used it in 'tongue-in-cheek' manner... or was it your bio? In any event, my idiot cousin who forwarded the email to me actually sent me a nice gift. Intending to just as quickly hit Reply, I quickly Wiki'd you & discovered a kindred spirit. The funny part is the same idiots who send it on turn on a dime after reading your blog. ;~D

People who get snookered by such emails don't want to be confused by the facts - they just want to spout & pout for attention. Most are charter members of the Rush & Glenn Fan Club... and recipients of government health care (either VA or Medicare)for quite some time.

IMHO, their anger is misplaced... transferred from helpless anger at having their life savings cut in half last year. They can't go back & kick those dogs so they've been given a chance to kick this one. Nothing makes a person mad quite like 'swiping' their money!!

I would love a critique of "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" by Paul Kennedy, history prof at Yale. Were his predictions for the US correct?

I stopped posting on Moms Hugs in September as the vitriol robbed my good spirits.

Watching "National Parks" this week has done a good job of giving back some perspective. Now we ought to make our citizens' health a national treasure for everyone to enjoy as well.

Moms Hugs (aka Eve)

Moms Hugs (aka Eve) said...

The CEO's of the Mayo & Cleveland Clinics were on C-Span this past week. Both were excellent in their relating details of their excellent operations. (c-span.org)

For a perspective of a urologist who left academia for private practice 10 years ago, read:

"Fixing the healthcare system is simple. Pay physicians 90% of the aver per specialty for a guaranteed 10 years with inflation clauses to perform evidence based medicine with an internet based data base as an alternative to commercial based plans. Stop any tax incentives for insurance based plans. Cover all malpractice through a government program. Practitioners practicing outside of evidence based medicine with more than two incidence of clear malpractice based on peer review committee will be require to take a new residence training. All medicine educational loans forgiven and new trainees covered if they meet the highest standards scholastically and ethically will be hired. No physician ownership of medical testing. Hospitals all nonprofits with set and reasonable standards for quality based bonuses based on recognized standards. There should not be incentives by profits related to certain huge dollar procedures. All government based medical treatments based an generics unless research dictated significant better outcomes necessitates change.

The only problem is that you will hurt the current American economy by approximately 10-15% and you will have to ignore the enormous investment of a large number of business with a vested interest in keeping this lucrative machine going.

Good luck Mr Obama!

Anonymous said...

The public option would be cheaper? Medicare now costs half a trillion dollars a year. Five years from now it will cost $730 billion. The CBO pegs the long term cost (the unfunded liability) at $34 trillion.

This, despite the fact that Medicare pushes its costs onto other payers, including the uninsured. When Medicare demands a 50% discount, it's a discount from the posted price, which gets pushed upward. And who pays the posted price? The uninsured.

John said...

We've had a Democratic Congress---both houses---since the 2006 elections, yet Kaiser rages that Republican ideas dominate the debate. Maybe he should stop listening to talk radio every day . . . . The people on the far left and the far right are almost indistinguishable; they see the world through a lens, which in Kaiser's case can be described as "Harvard Class of '69".

How can anyone trust his description of historical events, when he approaches history with an agenda?

Anonymous said...

Mr Kaiser. I am sorry you are the target of a fraud but you perpetuated one on Rush. Rush's comment about 'we all know that is how Mr.Obama thinks' was an extension to what the media said about him when they attacked him for a similar statement attributed to him but later proved wrong. Their statement was [we all know that is what he thinks so it doesn't matter that this one is not correct.] Rush was just playing the media comment back against the guy they are in the tank for. We have no idea what Rush actually thinks about Mr. Obama. I am sorry you are a target but you can now see how easy it is to become part of the ones doing the shooting as you have misrepresented what Rush said.