This afternoon, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT: $1,892,999*) and House Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel (D-NY: $1,372,369) head to the White House for a potentially pivotal meeting with President Obama on health care reform. In an increasingly uphill battle these two key Democrat legislators have been struggling lately with the inevitable bottom line: How much is effective health care reform going to cost?
A better question might be: Who's really paying for and benefiting from reform? Taxpayers? Or health care industry lobbies?
Baucus recently slashed the price tag of health care reform to less than the $1 trillion with a variety of taxes and a handful of industry fees. On an issue that could define his career and his party, he's made many concessions to interested parties and seemingly committed himself to including everyone in this "strategic" and "fun" debate:
"I'm sick and tired of being the maintenance senator, the extender senator," he said in his spacious corner office on Capitol Hill. "Here, we're doing something. It's holistic, it's our health-care apparatus. We don't even have a system in America, really, and the idea is to get some structure, some meaning. You add it all together, and it's strategic. It's fun. A lot of senators want to participate in it, and groups do. They know that the train is leaving the station. There's a sense of inevitability here."
Numbers speak louder than words. From 2003 through the end of 2008, Senator Baucus received nearly $2 million in contributions from the health care and insurance industries. Only presidential candidates John McCain (R-AZ: $7,690,168), John Kerry (D-MA: 7,453,749), and party-switching Arlen Spector (D-PA: $2,214,653) have received more.
Meanwhile, Rep. Rangel's nearly $1.5 million places him right on the heels of the Senators. In the Congressman's fight against political odds for his plan to tax the wealthy, he's even accused the pharmaceutical industry of stealing:
"Everyone knows that people around the table are stealing, but they don't want to turn each other in if they're going to have to pay the full penalty," said Rep. Charles Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Asked in an interview on MSNBC what he meant by stealing, the New York Democrat replied, "I mean stealing."
Asked if he were referring to drug companies, he said, "I'm talking about pharmaceuticals, in the sense that they're now coming forward saying that they want to be able to fill that vacuum that's there."
He added: "Everyone is now saying, `I want to do the right thing. Just do the right thing by me. Just be fair by me.' We're talking about people now saying that they don't have to charge as much for everything as they had in the past as long as there's an even playing field."
It's taking a while to do the right thing. The House has pushed back the unveiling of their version of the health care bill to Tuesday, and a number of reports from legislators signal that Congress won't make their deadline to pass a bill before the August deadline.
What's the hold up? Besides the sheer scale of this piece of legislation--the latest bill version weighed in at 615 pages--the complex web of lobbying efforts that follows those campaign contributions must be creating some snags. Paul Blumenthal recently mapped out Baucus's own network in the wake of questions raised about former staffers turned lobbyists by theWashington Post and NPR. (Blumenthal also helped visualize similar connections between theRepublican and Democrat members of the Senate Finance Committee and health care industry lobbies.)
While there's still time, we need to hold the lens closer those members who are most tightly tangled in these webs. This week, citizen journalists at the Huffington Post Health Care Investigative Unit will be mapping out connections between some of the most influential members of Congress and the funds that drive their campaigns. Meanwhile, reporters are in touch with congressional offices on a regular basis, keeping their latest stances on record.
A new partnership with the non-profit watchdog site LittleSis.org is making this possible. Self-described as "an involuntary Facebook for influential people," Little Sis has built a portal to investigate how connections and relationships drive the most powerful Americans. The profiles can be publicly updated, and HuffPost citizen journalists will compile results as the debate continues.
This is a make-or-break week for estimating the cost of health care reform. Rather than turn the camera to the lawmakers' estimates on a price tag, more people should be looking backstage.
That said, cost is a loaded term, one thrown around often by politicians. Going forward, a deeper discussion on value should take the stage. And include the plural: values.
*The dollar amount listed after each Senator and Congressman refers to total donations from health care lobbyists during the period of Jan 2003-Dec 2008 according to MapLight and the Center for Responsive Politics.