Posts Tagged ‘lobbyists’

As the Senate prepares to take up the issue of health care reform, the Republican Party is gearing up for a fight to the finish, a fight to defeat any attempt at improving our health care system.  It is a desperate struggle the Republicans are waging, desperate because it is about money – lots of money.  It’s also a sad struggle because it shows so clearly how corrupt our government is. Granted, our government has been corrupt for a long time. Slipping a wad of money into a Congressman’s pocket is an old tradition on Capitol Hill. It’s the best way to assure that you can either get the legislation you want or to prevent legislation you don’t want from being passed.  Today, this “passing of bucks” is accomplished by middlemen, called lobbyists. It seems that just about every Congressman and Senator has his price. There are precious few who cannot be bought.

Money is where the health industry comes in. It is, of course where Republicans come in as well.  After all, they are the Party of business, of Capitalism, of profit. That is their constituency.  One is tempted to say, “OK, that’s alright. Let the Republicans represent the sellers of goods and the Democrats represent the buyers of goods.” Of course, it’s not that simple because the Democrats also represent the ordinary workers, while the Republicans represent the employers.  But one would hope at least that there could be an honest debate.  One could hope that there would be a rational discussion of the facts – all in the national interest.  It would be a debate about what is best for the American people – after all, isn’t that ultimately the purpose of Congress – to do what is best for Americans?

Unfortunately, the Republican Party has chosen not to have a debate on the merits of health care reform.  Instead they have launched campaigns of outright lies about reform. They have tried mightily to steer the debate into discussions about Death Panels and Nazi medical experiments and the rationing of health care.  Any reasonable person can tell that these Republican tactics are nothing but lies and because they are lies and not real issues that should be discussed, the Republican Party has done a disservice to America – in brief, they have become un-American in their zeal to protect the profitability of medicine.

There is a danger here in all of this distortion, in all of these attempts to steer the discussion away from the real issues and to focus on trumped-up concerns that have no basis in reality.  The danger is that we will fail to ever discuss the actual dangers that are inherent in our current way of going about the health business.  Here is one excellent example that, as far as I can tell, is being completely ignored: we have a vastly insufficient supply of H1N1 vaccine because we have a for-profit health system.

The simple fact is that not everyone gets a flu shot every year. Most people do not get routine flu shots and because of this our vaccine industry, ever intent on making a profit, has sized itself according to the yearly demand for flu shots.  Our commercial vaccine production industry simply does not have the capability of making enough H1N1 vaccine to protect everyone man, woman, and child in this country. It simply cannot be done.

So, I would ask our imaginative friends in the Republican Party, the ones whose vivid imaginations can conjure up images of Death Panels and Nazi medicine being practiced on Americans, and the limiting of health care to only those who are connected with someone in government, to think about something else. Consider this: suppose the H1N1 flu strain that is making the rounds this year was different. Suppose instead that it was the same H1N1 strain that made the rounds in 1918. How many people would die in America? One hundred million? Two hundred million? How many would die in the entire world? A billion? Two billion? What could be done stop that strain of flu?  Nothing. Nothing could be done in 1918 and nothing could be done now.

The question I would put to the Republican members of Congress is this: is there any way you could think of that we might be able to make enough vaccine for everyone in a case like this?  There is only one answer: the government has to create this capability in advance – it’s not a last-minute sort of thing.  Why? Because it’s a money loser. Big business would hate it – it’s a gigantic capacity that would only be used once in a lifetime.  You can’t make money from that. Which is why there is a natural role for government in health care. The government spends about half of our national budget on defense – i.e. defending us from other people in other countries. How long will it take until we understand that it is also the role of government to defend us from other foreign attackers, things like viruses and bacteria. It might seem strange at first to look at it that way, but think about this: suppose – just suppose – that there really were aliens from Mars attacking us – would it be the role of government to defend us? What if instead of the Martians being little green men they were little green bugs?  What if these little green bugs were actually microscopic invaders? How is that different from deadly Earth-based viruses attacking us?

The simple fact is that the government has a duty to protect its citizens. This duty extends to protecting the citizen’s health. Health care should not be a profit-making business.  It should be more like a utility, available to everyone and dispensed by the government. That doesn’t mean that businesses can’t play. People are certainly free to purchase health related things, but the government has to understand that it has a responsibility for the health of its citizens – a responsibility that cannot be dodged and delegated to the profit-making business community.  We missed a bullet this time with the H1N1 flu; however, it is virtually certain that a time will come in the future when a very deadly viral pandemic will sweep over the Earth.  The steps our Congress takes in the next couple of months may well determine whether America survives that inevitable pandemic; it may well determine whether the population of our country is obliterated or if it survives.  It would be a shame if hundreds of millions of Americans died in the future all because the Republicans wanted to help their friends in the health business make a buck.

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The worldwide economic meltdown has focused a lot of attention on the role and power of banks and insurance companies in our country.  In addition, the current debate on health care legislation also highlights the power of the health insurance companies.  In the part 1 and part 2 of this series I wrote about the way these money-making industries use their financial power to influence our government, through the intermediaries we call lobbyists, to essentially purchase legislation that is beneficial to the bottom line of these companies, at the expense of the American citizen.

There is another group of wealthy people we don’t often think of as wealthy because they prefer to stay in the background.  They don’t have the names or jobs of the famous robber barons of the past, names like Rockefeller and Morgan, but they are quietly there nonetheless and we were warned about them many years ago by one of our presidents.  It was a warning our government chose to ignore. I am talking about the military-industrial complex. The warning about this group of for-profit businessmen was issued by President Eisenhower. Over the years since World War II, our U.S. military industrial complex has grown rich – bloated might be a better word.  In spite of President Eisenhower’s warning this industry has grown so large that it is potentially a larger factor and therefore a larger potential danger to the economic well being of the country than the banks and the insurance companies put together.

Today the total budget of the United States is about $3.1 trillion dollars.  Of that amount, about half, $1.49 trillion dollars will be spent this year on military-related costs. When George Bush was president he attempted to hide the growth in this part of the budget by keeping the costs of the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War out of the budget. These costs are instead appropriations.  He went even further to distract attention from the total military costs in our budget by making the “Global War on Terror” a separate line item in the defense budget, separate from the line labelled “Department of Defense”.  It’s like having a budget for a fire department where we might have a set of costs labelled “Fire Department” and another set of costs labelled “Putting out fires”.

The simple fact that defense spending, one way or another, eats up half of our tax dollars shows implicitly the effect the military-industrial complex has on our economy.  The point here is not that we are spending a lot of money on a war that was started by our enemies. The point is that we are spending a lot more money on “defense” that is unnecessary.  A good example is the USS George H W Bush, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier that was launched at the end of the George W Bush administration.  This aircraft carrier is a dinosaur, a creature of an age of Soviet/American tensions and it is designed to provide a deterrent against a foe that doesn’t even exist anymore.  In an age when our primary strike weapons have become stealth bombers that fly non-stop from the U.S. and remote controlled drones that launch missiles directed by operators sitting in control rooms in the U.S. mainland, the aircraft carrier is headed for extinction, just as the battleship did before.

However, it is not about aircraft carriers and battleships that I am concerned.  It is our the decisions that are made to produce weapon systems that are either outdated, ineffective, inappropriate, or just the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I am concerned about the decision making process in military procurement that creates a condition where we send in soldiers to Iraq using Humvees as their primary patrol vehicle while these vehicles are without any armor at all.  Meanwhile we spend huge amounts of money building tanks and other armored vehicles that are of little use.

The list of useless, ineffective, inappropriate, and just plain awful products that our military buys from the industrial complex is a very long one.  And some people get very rich selling these products to the government while other, more effective products, are shunted aside and never purchased at all.  Why? Because it is all about connections.  Connections between the wealthy owners of the manufacturers of the weapons and the people who sign the purchase orders.  It is about connections between lobbyists and Congressmen when decisions are made about what to buy and what not to buy.  There is a flow of money, just as in the banking and insurance industries, from the military equipment manufacturers, via lobbyists, to our elected representatives and that is how decisions are made: not to buy the best product for the best price, but to buy the product that will put money in someone’s pocket.

And that, in a nutshell, is how your government spends about half of your tax dollars.  On the other hand there are other countries, European countries, that spend far less of a percentage of their national budget on “defense”.  Did you ever wonder what those countries do with all of their excess money that they don’t waste on frivolous defense expenditures?  Here’s one thing they do: a lot of them provide free medical care for their citizens.  Here’s another thing: some of them also provide 100% free college costs for their citizens.  While our government lurches from “crisis” to “crisis” the rest of Western civilization is pursuing a more constructive path, making better lives for their citizens.  That’s because they are not burdened by a system of power that starts with the wealthy and proceeds, via a group of lobbyists, directly to our elected representatives.  In many countries the elected representatives actually try to help the people and not just help themselves to a bigger piece of the pie.

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In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about the role of the banking industry in our government and how, via the lobbying industry, they were able to influence our government to create or remove laws regarding the banking industry.  You might call it a buyout of our government.  One of the rather unique features of the banking business is that it doesn’t create a tangible product, like washing machines or automobiles.  It just loans money to you and then its meter starts running, and you have to pay back the money plus an additional amount – and that additional amount can be enormous.  For example, if you take out a $100,000 mortgage on a house at 5% interest for 30 years, by the time you have paid back the bank you will have paid $193,255, almost twice the purchase price of the house. If you have the misfortune of having an adjustable rate mortgage you might find your total repayment to be a lot more. Which is one of the reasons we are now in a worldwide recession.

There is another financial industry that is a close cousin to the banking industry.  It also produces no tangible product, but unlike the banking industry, where if all goes well you eventually wind up owning your own house, in this other financial industry, if all goes well you wind up with no return on your investment at all, i.e. you get nothing.  I am, of course, talking about the insurance industry.  Little more than legalized gambling on the probability of personal disasters, the insurance industry is one of the big money-making businesses in our country, and if we care to recall the activities of AIG and credit default swaps, it is also one of the leading causes of the worldwide recession too.

Like the banks, the insurance industry is in the business of taking more money in than it gives out.  Today we have insurance for life, health, accidents, fire, hurricanes, you name it.  You can get insurance for just about anything.  If you are an average American you will never collect as much money in claims as you pay in premiums.  It has to be that way, otherwise the insurance companies would lose money – and that isn’t going to happen.  Like the state lottery, your chances of winning when you buy insurance are small – and the insurance companies want to make your chances ever smaller.

Which brings us to the topic of health insurance.  Until Barack Obama became president the insurance companies were pretty content with their system of health insurance, i.e. don’t insure high risk people and set the cost of insurance high enough so that even when the expected number of people have legitimate claims there will still be enough money left over for a fat profit.

Enter President Obama.  Without waiting to hear the details of his plans for health care reform the insurance companies began their anti-reform campaign.  Why? Were they worried that the American consumer would be hurt by reform?  Were they concerned that it wouldn’t be fair to some citizens?  Were they worried that some people might be left out?  Were they worried that our medical system would be inundated with millions of new patients when everyone had insurance and therefore the quality of healthcare would deteriorate? No.  They were worried about losing money, that’s all.  They had a good thing going by only selling insurance to people who would probably never use it.  That last thing they want to do is to sell insurance to someone who is going to run up a big medical bill.  So, they had to take action.

The health insurance, and entire health care industry, began a massive spending campaign on lobbying Congress – much larger than their usual massive campaigns. In the first quarter of 2009 this group of businesses spent over $35, 000,000 lobbying members of Congress. Ummm, let’s see now… there are 100 Senators and 435 Representatives…so 35 million divided by 535 is, uh, $65,420.56 per person.  Not bad. Of course that’s just in the first quarter too.  Who knows what the total amount will be by the time the voting is done.  And, naturally, the money is not spread around evenly.  You can bet there is strategy involved. There are certain key Senators and Congressmen whose votes might make the difference.  It’s a great system we have. If you own a business, you send your money in to Congress and then you tell them how to vote so that your business makes a fat profit. The fact that by so voting a Congressman might actually harm rather than help his/her constituents is just not part of the equation for many members of Congress.

The direct link from wealthy owners of major companies to our government representatives via lobbyists is well known.  The remarkable thing is that the American people do not seem to be very upset about our system.  Of course, when things don’t turn out good in the end the people always vote out the bad Congressmen and even Presidents, but these people are just replaced by a new and eager crop of recruits, eager to participate in the same process – i.e. pocketing money from lobbyists. We have the best government that money can buy.

That of course is the problem.  It is the wealthy who have the money to spend in this way, and it is the wealthy who hire the lobbyists, and it is the wealthy who then tell our elected representatives how to vote.  In Part 1 of this series I showed how this invisible hand of the wealthy directly led to the failure of our banking system and the worldwide economic meltdown. Now we have the same process occurring in one part of our insurance industry – namely the health insurance industry – and the result could well be as catastrophic, because if health insurance reform doesn’t happen the cost of insurance will continue to escalate while the insurance companies continue to find reasons to disqualify treatment for certain diseases, even for people who have paid their premiums.  This is what the insurance companies want – maximum profits and minimum losses.  Our government should be protecting us from these vultures, but how can that happen when the elected members of our government are receiving millions and millions of dollars from them?

The invisible hand of the wealthy isn’t really all that invisible, but it is very powerful because it pervades the entire economy and budget of the country.  We have already seen how the banking and the insurance industry exerts its control over our government.  However, the wealthy are involved in other industries too.  We’ll look at that in Part 3 of this series.

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Today’s news brought the surprise announcement that the Senate had voted to eliminate any more purchases for the F-22 fighter aircraft. You may not be too familiar with this fighter because, while it was designed in the 1980’s it has never been used in any of our wars.  It is a relic of the cold war – a time when the U.S. thought it might someday be engaged in a shootout with either Russia or China.  Now, with both Russia and China looking more like U.S. business partners, its certainly hard to justify purchasing anymore of these F-22s for which we have never found any use at all.  But is it really possible the Senate actually made a decision based upon common sense and not the influence of lobbyists for the defense industry?  It’s hard to believe, I know. But never fear, Congress hasn’t completely lost its mind, the House has decided to stay the course. They want to put money in the budget to buy enough spare parts for the never-used F-22 for twelve more planes.  I wonder – are they actually contemplating building twelve plabnes from spare parts?  Or do they just want to be sure they have enough spare parts to last the next 100 years – just in case.  I can almost hear a sigh of relief from Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the plane.  Defense contractor welfare is still alive.

Speaking of defense contractor welfare, I wonder how we are using the USS George H W Bush, which was recently launched? Another cold war relic that was just completed, this baby netted Northrop Grumman a cool $6,200,000,000.  Not bad for a ship that is unlikely to ever face a Russian or Chinese armada.  The irony of this defense contractor welfare state we have created, through a host of lobbyists and oh-too-willing senators and representatives, is that we spend enormous amounts of money on things we never use and then we spend nothing on things our soldiers desperately need.  Remember the Iraq invasion and how Cheney said our troops would have the finest equipment and blah, blah, blah? Within a couple of months, our soldiers were scrounging in dumps for armor they could attach to their Humvees because they were driving these things into the middle of spontaneous battles with no protection at all.  And our coddled defense contractors didn’t have a thing on their shelves that help.  Did our lobbyist/senator/representative coalition give a hoot?  I doubt they were even aware of the problem – let’s face it, there’s not a lot of money to be made in manufacturing armor for Humvees anyway. So who cares?

Now the contractors are saying they have the perfect solution for the tragic loss of the F-22 from our dubious arsenal.  How about an new plane, the F-35?  Yeah, that’s the ticket!  Interestingly and coincidentally, this baby is also built by Lockheed Martin.  All we need now is a potential, or at least plausible enemy, in order to get the old production line rolling.  Maybe we could get the Russians or the Chinese to do something provocative – like in the good old days when there were any number of reasons to justify a bloated defense budget.  You would think that Putin could help out here, wouldn’t you? Just for old times sake.  All he would have to do would be to just glare at President Obama.  That’s all – he wouldn’t have to say a word – that should be worth at least a $500 billion contract for three or four F-35s, wouldn’t it?  I can hear the production line humming already.

There’s just one thing.  The F-35 is already obsolete technology – let alone the fact that we don’t have a plausible enemy to use it against.  Today’s aircraft technology has leap-frogged its way to a new generation of pilot-less planes.  We don’t really need fighter pilots anymore.  The Predator, flown in Afganistan and Pakistan, but piloted remotely from Nevada,  shows us the way of the future.  Pilot-less fighter planes can be made that can perform maneuvers that no human could tolerate, and they can go into extremely risky situations with no chance of losing of losing a pilot’s life.   They can be made faster, smaller, cheaper, and better than manned fighters.  Manned fighters are as obsolete as sailing ships and observation balloons.  I know fighter pilots hate this, let alone the bloated defense industry, but further manned-fighter production is nothing more than welfare for defense contractors.

Wouldn’t it just make more sense to take all the money we waste on useless systems built by our defense contractors and use it for national health care?  I mean, if we are going to have our lobbyist/senator/representative coalition create trickle-down welfare projects, why can’t they just fund welfare  that actually provides for our welfare directly?  Wouldn’t that just be more efficient?  The problem is that we ordinary citizens don’t have a way to shovel money to the lobbyists to prime the pump, as it were.  So, while we wait and watch our elected people in Congress agonize over the cost of health, those same senators and congressmen divert money to defense contractors to be used on profoundly useless systems- like the F-22 or the F-35.  If this wasn’t the way our government functions it would be a crime.

So, is today’s news a signal that the world has changed?  Has sense and honesty finally come to Washington? Hardly.  The old boy network doesn’t die that easily.  The F-22 might die, but I’ll bet we’ll sooner see funding for the F-35 than we do for health care.  And don’t be surprised if there is new funding for a whole new class of “nukula” aircraft carriers while they are at it, the first of which will be called the USS George W Bush.

I suppose the Navy will just call it The Big W.

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As the budget makes its way through Congress we now hear the annual outcry from certain politicians about the great evil of Congressional earmarks.  Senator John McCain could probably be called the champion of the crusade to eliminate earmarks.  Hey John, I have an idea.  Why don’t we just eliminate the Senate? Or even better, maybe just eliminate the Senate seats from Arizona? Would that work for you?

The earmark is an old tradition in our governmental process and it serves a good purpose: it represents the voice of the people via their elected representatives in Congress.  Each year our government needs to create a budget for the following year.  Guess who has that responsibility? The President  – not the Congress. But the President doesn’t actually draw up the budget, neither do his White House staff.  They don’t have the time or resources for that.  The initial cut at a budget is delegated to the army of civil servants that work in our many governmental agencies. Basically a request goes out from the President for inputs into the next year’s budget. The request goes to the Department of Defense then to the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  The request goes to the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, and on and on.  Every department gets to send in their wish list to the President for both continuing and new funding.  This is all done by the employees of these departments who are all civil servants, i.e. government employees.  If you ask any one of these government employees who they work for they will immediately say they work for the President – and they do.  Some will tell you that they are the government.  No, really, some of them actually think like that.  Some of these people don’t know the difference between being a government employee and being the government itself.  Does all this sound a little inbred?  You bet it does.

Here’s where Congress comes in.  They get to approve and modify the budget. John McCain, a staunch supporter of the military “chain of command” school of thinking, believes that the only appropriate action for Congress to take is to approve or disapprove the President’s budget. He doesn’t go for that modification thing at all.  After all, John McCain, old soldier that he is, knows full well that the President is the Commander in Chief – so why should anyone else have a say in the budget?  Because we are not a dictatorship, John; that’s why.  Our elected Representatives and Senators are sent to Congress to listen to our local needs and to represent those local needs in Congress – if they don’t do that then who needs them?  That is how our government works and any senator worth his salary should know that.

One way our representatives represent us is by adding items to the budget that the President’s civil servants neglected to include.  These additions that correct the errors and omissions of the President’s budget are called earmarks.  Senataor McCain wants them all banned forever and ever.

For example, Senator McCain recently ridiculed an earmark for North Carolina for “beaver management”. McCain sent out a tweet to his followers (McCain actually knows how to send a tweet? He knows about computers and text messages?) saying, “How does one manage a beaver?”  I can just hear him chuckling now.  Pretty funny – like herding cats, I guess.  Right, Johnny. In actuality, if you bothered to check, Johnny, you would find that you manage them by trapping them and by blowing up their dams.  Why? Because if you don’t you get severe flooding of rivers and streams that causes lots of property damage and the loss of millions and millions of dollars, because the beaver population tends to get too large.  That’s why.  And that’s why earmarks are a necessary part of the process.  The civil servants of this country do not represent us or our interests.  They don’t even know about our needs or interests, and neither, it seems, does John McCain.

The real problem with the earmark process, if John McCain would like to know, is when lobbyists get involved in the process.  Then money starts to change hands and unnecessary earmarks make their way into the budget and a few select companies make a lot of money doing senseless things.  However, this is really a problem with lobbying, not earmarks.  The real problem is that lobbying also affects the President’s budget too.  You know all those civil servants who write up the budget inputs? Lobbyists talk to them.  They also talk to the generals and the admirals. They talk to anyone who has the power to control spending. The result is that the President’s budget is as equally likely to be contaminated with foolish projects as are the Congressional earmarks.  The real problem is not earmarks.  The real problem, which no one seems to complain about, is the lobbyists.  Funny thing though, you never hear McCain complain about lobbyists, do you?  Hmmm, I wonder why?

If you want to learn more about McCain’s relationship with lobbyists, click here.

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