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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Tail Wagging the Dog: Congress under the Influence

Congress may be like a drunk, unaware that it is being handed one drink after another by vested interests oriented to legislation with specific financial objectives. On February 28, 2010 on CNN’s State of the Union, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker at the time of the U.S. House of Representatives, said that the health insurance companies didn’t want a government-financed and operated "public option" for American citizens, so it was off the table. Her statement resonates with the earlier one by U.S. Senator Richard Durbin just after his forclosure-assistance amendment failed: "The banking lobby owns Congress." That the health insurance companies and Wall Street banks were generally viewed as at least partially culpable even as they still had Congress in their pockets points to a serious corruption in American government.

Even when companies (or an industry) are at fault, they can still call the shots in Congress when their interests are at stake. At the very least, they can encourage diversions that enable them to safeguard planks in legislation that protect their interests. Consider, for example, Representative Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat of California in the U.S. House. The husband of a family practice physician, he is intimately familiar with the failings of the American health care system. His wife “comes home every night,” he said, “angry and frustrated at insurance companies denying people coverage they have paid for.” Even so, he is on the fence on the Democratic health-care reform proposal because he wants stronger anti-abortion language and more cost control. Were he really angry like his wife, he would be pushing for the public option and for real restrictions on the insurance companies, rather than allowing secondary issues to get in the way.

I don’t believe Dennis Cardoza was all that angry at the companies that have been refusing to fuffill their responsibilities to their customers who have paid premiums. Moreover, he was allowing himself to succumb to the self-interested manipulation of the insurance companies that had purported sparked his anger. It is in the health insurance companies' interest that costs are reduced because then their expenses are reduced. If he were really angry like his wife, he would not be so willing to do something that would benefit them so much; rather, he would be working to take power and money away from them by insisting on a public option.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, a lobbyist for the insurers, announced in March 2010 as Congress was considering health-insurance reform that the organization was buying more than a million dollars’ worth of television advertising time in order to "explain" why insurance premiums had been rising. Such a claim of educating the public is a subterfuge behind a financially-induced intention to manipulate public opinion to shape the health insurance law in the interest of the insurers (even as their practices of exclusion had been part of the problem). The week before, the White House had indicated that the industry’s rationale for the raised premiums was unconvincing, but how many people got this information through the din of the lobbyist's commercials?

All too often without realizing it, citizens allow industries to get away with their misrepresentations that are geared to thwart reform. The health insurance industry’s ads convince us that the companies really aren’t sharks; we ignore Sen. Rockefeller’s likening of the companies to sharks—you don’t know there is a shark until you see its fin and feel its sharp teeth. In other words, our anger is too easily (and conveniently…for the sharks) dissipated. In other words, we let the bad kids off the hook and go on as if the problem were somehow no longer out there. This puts the misbehaving kids in a position to thwart any parenting. We ignore the inherent conflict of interest in this scenerio as the kids steer public policy to our detriment.

I suppose it is only natural that sick kids would not feel culpable for their illnesses. Even so, the sick kid sitting on the table in a physician's office does not get to decide on his own treatment even if he or she is from a rich family. If there is an adult in the room, the kid is overruled in his own case and the shot is given over the kid’s objection. In the case of health reform, one might reasonably ask: where are the adults, or are the sick insurers in the driver's seat even as they are on the table?


 David M. Herszenhorn and Robert Pear, “Parliamentary Hurdle Could Thwart Latest Health Care Overhaul Strategy,” The New York Times, March 9, 2010.