DAVID ASMAN, FOX BUSINESS HOST: Lawmakers taking the lead in health care reform are also the ones taking big money from the health care industry. Names like Baucus, Grassley and Rangel, getting millions of dollars. Is something wrong with this picture?
Coming up on deck, those who write legislative reform are pocketing huge amounts of money from the very same groups. Is that right? Some might call it bribery. We’ll score it next.
ASMAN: Fly fishing, golf, horseback riding, snowmobiling and hiking, an outdoorsman’s paradise, but also the kind of activities Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, has offered at his lavish fund-raisers in Montana.
Lobbyists pay up to $10,000 for a small talk with the Senator. and it does pay off apparently. Although that is business as usual in the beltway, we couldn’t help but highlight a flurry of contributions from both parties with strong interests in the health care reform bill and Senators who hold a crucial vote as legislation is crafted. Senator Baucus, for example, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Very important, key in what happens in terms of this health care debate. Now he collected $3 million bucks from the health insurance, health and insurance sectors from 2003-2008. Some of his top contributors, Schering-Plough, New York Life Insurance, Amgen, Blue Cross Blue Shield. You get the picture. He is not alone. Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, received over $2 million from the health care lobby since 2003. Charlie Rangel, a Democrat in New York, he got $1.6 million over past two years. He’s the head of the House Ways and Means Committee. And Republican Representative Dave Camp, of Michigan, he’s received about $1 million bucks.
All of these lawmakers sit on a committee that is drafting legislative reform of the health care system, so-called reform. Does the money passing hands between the health care lobby and lawmakers’ amount to what we normally call bribes? Or is this a way to keep the people’s voice in our lawmakers’ ears?
Joining us to debate the issue, Jerry Flanagan, in L.A. He’s director of Health Care Policy at Consumer Watchdog; and from D.C., John Jonas, a partner at lobbyist firm of Patton Boggs.
Good to see you both.
Jerry, first to you. Do you consider the money that passes hands here a bribe?
JERRY FLANAGAN, DIRECTOR OF HEALTH CARE POLICY, CONSUMER WATCHDOG: You know, look, members of Congress are never going to admit they’re influenced by campaign contributions, but I don’t think anyone disputes the fact that $10,000 to get into a dinner or $2,500 to get to a fishing event certainly buys access to the health insurance industry and the drug industry that the rest of America doesn’t get. That is what is really disturbing here is that this fund-raising while policy making gives a small sector of companies and interests access to the decision-makers that the rest of us don’t have.
Now, certainly, Mr. Baucus and Mr. Grassley will tell you flat-out that they’re not influenced by money and politics and it’s all about what’s best for the American public. but they’re not hearing what is best for American public because they’re only hearing from the insurance companies and the drug companies.
ASMAN: He says, by the way, quote, "No one gets special treatment." This is what Max Baucus says. Paraphrasing what you just said. But, Jerry, the fact is that anybody is free to lobby. Nobody is excluded. If you can pony up money for
this ranch time that Senator Baucus has, you can be on either side of a particular debate, right?
FLANAGAN: That is just the point though, right? It’s money buying access. Insurance companies and drug companies have money to burn. You were talking about, in an earlier segment, not allowing the Fed to make money. That is what drug companies and insurance companies are really doing. If they want more money to spend on Baucus’ fly fishing trip in Montana, they raise our premium rates. These are companies that have unlimited amount of money to buy access to these events to get Mr. Baucus’ ear or Mr. Grassley’s ear as it might be.
The point is, average Americans who are having trouble affording health insurance and can’t get the drugs they need because they cost too much, certainly don’t have the $2,500 or $10,000 to go to event in Montana, let alone fly out there and figure out all those logistical nightmares.
ASMAN: John Jonas, let me ask you, is there another side to the debate? That is, are there people on the other side of the health care issue, ones who are not crazy about creating a new government bureaucracy for health care, who actually do have access to Senator Max Baucus and all these other guys who are so important in writing the bill?
JOHN JONAS, PARTNER, PATTON BOGGS: Look, money and politics is a really old, old issue. People raise money. We don’t have public financing of campaigns. The only other alternative is to have wealthy self-finance. Until we have a better system, we’re going to have money in public campaigns and that’s just the way it is.
Lots of people have access to members of Congress. Voters do. Talk radio does. Editorial writers do. There are lots and lots of ways to influence the system. and to think that the sole way that the system is influenced or unduly bent solely through campaign contributions, is just kind of a myth. And quite frankly, many of the strongest proponents of health care reform, like Chairman Waxman. Chairman Starke — I think President Obama raised a fair amount of money through campaign contributions. So yes, there is money in the process. Is it the absolute best system? I don’t know. I think we can have a long debate about the pros and cons. But the idea that everybody who makes a contribution to a political candidate, therefore that candidate is in his pocket, or her pocket, and that’s only voice they listen to, is just exaggeration of how the system really operates. And I think…
ASMAN: So, Jerry, the Supreme Court has said, as you well know, that spending money to politicians is form of free speech. It’s kind of a way leveling the playing field. As John said, you got all of the editorials, all the talk radio shows that are in favor of some kind of dramatic health care reform. That — the money put in by lobbyists from Schering-Plough and the others levels the playing field. How do you argue against that?
FLANAGAN: I think that is ridiculous. I don’t see how you can say that having an intimate dinner with Max Baucus in San Francisco or fly fishing in rivers in Montana doesn’t get you a special kind of access that members of the electorate in Montana don’t have…
ASMAN: Well, it gets you access.
But, John, how will it actually change his vote? In what way?
JONAS: Look, Max Baucus and other members go out, they meet with their constituents. They have town hall meetings. There is lots and lots of access to meetings they hold, weekly breakfasts. This idea that members are not accessible and not accessible to their constituents is just not true.
And also, I think there’s a kind of myth that there’s this ideal solution to our health care problems out there, that a small group of well- financed lobbyists are blocking. I mean these are very, very difficult issues. They’re complicated. I think as Chairman Waxman said, if it was easy it would have been done a long time ago. These are complicated issues. There are tough policy debates. People who have very large business interests in health care, people who have built up health care companies, people who run, yes, dreaded pharmaceutical companies, have a stake in the outcome.
JONAS: And need to participate in the process.
ASMAN: John and Jerry, hold on. I want to bring back our panel.
Joining us is "FOX Business" reporter, Tracy Byrnes.
So, Tracy, are these bribes? Do they pass muster? If I’m with a pharmaceutical company and want something that I have an interest in written into a bill and I give money to a politician who is writing that bill, it is pretty close to a bribe, isn’t it?
TRACY BYRNES, FOX BUSINESS REPORTER: It is really gray, David. In this day and age, everything is D.C. is gray. No one wants to hear this stuff is going on. Granted, it probably has been going on for the test of time. But I think because the American people are on such edge, they don’t want to hear anymore that the Congressman and the people we voted in are only taking answers and only listening to the people with big fat wallets.
CROWLEY: And John was pointing out that the media also have influence on politicians and how they think and can sway
opinion. But let’s face it, money is the mother’s milk of politics. And so if these guys don’t go the way that Schering-Plough or some of these other companies want, when they have given them, $10, $50,000 for their reelection campaign, that money will evaporate. It will dry up and the politicians know that.
Peter, go ahead.
PETER MORICI – PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS, UNIVERSITY OF MARLYAND: If you look at most recent episode, George Bush and prescription drug coverage, the pharmaceutical companies did very well there in keeping out and limiting the ability of the secretary for Health and Human Services to impose formularies on which drugs should be used, or price controls of any meaningful kind. The drug companies did very well. It is not in particular votes. It’s in the slow process of drafting the legislation, the nuances, the fine print. They do very well by this influence that they obtain through these very large campaign contributions.
ASMAN: We’ve got about 15 seconds. John Jonas, I heard you want to go in. Go ahead.
JONAS: Look, the, the contributions don’t matter. At the end of the day, the votes matter. And if the politicians don’t deliver the kind of legislation that their voters want and expect, they will be turned out of office.
So, the bottom line is not money. The bottom line is votes and pleasing your voters back home. and at end of the day that’s what members do.
ASMAN: All right, money and power, though, they do go together.