Commentary: Changing Washington: The hard part

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The difficulty overcoming the entrenched political tradition of earmarks is just one of many hard realities that will test the Obama Administration’s desire to change the way Washington works. The truth is, despite an economic crisis, the city remains awash in special interest cash and lobbying money. Despite the aura of real change in the Washington air, these well-targeted funds make meaningful legislative changes that run counter to such interests not only onerous but, in the end, unlikely.

Take any major issue the Administration is aiming to fix, and the behind-the-scenes political reality suggests just how tough it will be to succeed on Capitol Hill. The President, for example, has pledged to enact comprehensive health care reform this year. To do that, he will come up against an armada of health care interests including, for example, the pharmaceutical industry. This one industry, “Big Pharma,” is made up of some 40 companies and three trade associations, led by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

As the largest single lobby in Washington, the pharmaceutical industry fielded more than 1,100 lobbyists in 2007 — two for every member of Congress. The lobby’s leadership includes many former members of Congress as well. That year, Big Pharma and related organizations spent a record $189 million — a 30 percent increase from the year before. The result was that the pharmaceutical industry got virtually everything it wanted: it prevented importation of cheaper drugs from other countries, and made sure there were no limits placed on direct advertising of prescription drugs to consumers. The industry has thus far also kept in check proposals that would allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices. By boosting its spending mostly to Democrats who control Congress, the pharmaceutical industry has been exceptionally successful, spending about a billion dollars in lobbying over the last decade. And it’s been a great investment for the industry: U.S. prescription drug sales stood at a record $287 billion last year.

The last time health care reform was proposed, in 1993-94, a 195-page investigation into what happened by the Center for Public Integrity showed that more than 650 organizations and businesses spent over $100 million and hired at least 97 lobbying firms in a concentrated effort that successfully derailed health care reform. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller called it “the single most destructive campaign I’ve seen in 30 years.” If anything, the lobbying pressure will be far greater this time around and those numbers far higher.

Or consider what’s happening with climate change legislation. Regulating greenhouse gases is another major White House initiative, this one designed to “save our planet from the ravages of climate change,” as the new President put it in his address to Congress. Already, the money pouring into Washington on this single issue is staggering. In the last year alone, 770 companies, energy organizations, and interest groups hired an estimated 2,340 lobbyists to influence the climate change debate — this represents about 15 percent of all lobbyists and an increase of more than 300 percent since 2003. That means four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress. In 2008, these organizations spent more than $90 million weighing in on climate change legislation. Expect much more to be spent this year.

Of those 2,340 lobbyists, there are a smaller number of alternative energy (130) and environmental and health advocates (185) weighing in on the debate, but they are outnumbered 8-1 by the financial and lobbying firepower of the fossil fuel industries and other interests.

And then there’s the economy. Perhaps the most egregious example of how special interest money all but controls Congress has been in the financial services sector. From the 1980s until today, nearly every piece of banking legislation has favored greater deregulation and other actions that contributed directly to our current financial crisis. These actions were taken despite clear warnings of the possible consequences. Consider this: in hearing after hearing — in 1998, 2000, and 2001, and almost every year since — Congress was told that it needed to regulate subprime lending or risk systemic damage to our financial system. These warnings were never acted upon.

Why? The leading culprit: $5 billion in lobbying and political contributions over the past decade by the financial services industry, along with some 3,000 lobbyists who flooded Washington, according to a new report by Wall Street Watch. Among the lobbyists, the report found: 142 former members or employees of Congress or the executive branch.

When so much of the American government is for sale, the only question is how much will it take for a special interest to get more or less what it wants. Perhaps until now we just haven’t clearly grasped the enormous damage this can cause. Until Washington — and the nation — gets serious about limiting what has become legalized bribery in our system (if this were happening in another country, we would call it bribery and corruption), the odds may be long indeed that a new administration’s fresh ideas, bipartisan approaches, and oft-cited commitments to change will somehow be enough to make a dent in a badly broken system.

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