SCANDAL MEETS STUPIDITY: A coincidence? Or merely a strained confluence of curious unrelated events? You tell me.
The very same week that Republican members of Congress conducted a late-night, behind-closed-doors caucus meeting to de-fang, de-claw, and defenestrate the single most effective ethics watchdog agency that institution has ever had, we also heard that Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services — Republican Georgia Congressmember Tom Price — belongs to a medical organization that believes the effect of the landmark 1965 law creating both Medicare and Medicaid is “evil” and that participation in its provisions is “immoral.”
Is there a connection? Maybe not. But if you squint a little, you might conclude otherwise.
By now, the g-force of the news cycle surrounding President-elect Donald Trump has exacerbated the deficit of our collective attention disorder. But certain facts are worth reviewing even if they’re now so stale and crunchy they’ll crack your teeth. On Monday night, a rump faction of rogue, retrograde Republicans orchestrated a neck-tie party on behalf of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an investigative agency created in 2008 amid the lobbyist-bribery scandals then coming to light. OCE has no power to subpoena, and it imposes no disciplinary measures. Instead, it refers cases to the House Ethics Committee for any such action. Leading the charge against OCE were Republicans who found religion where civil liberties and due process were concerned only after their offices had been on the receiving end of OCE’s allegedly less-than-delicate probing. Against the vehement opposition of House Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy — worried principally about bad optics — this group of lawmakers voted to reconstitute OCE as a mere “complaint review board.” More critically, the renamed agency would no longer be empowered to pursue investigations based on anonymous tips, to share findings with other government agencies, to investigate allegations of criminal wrongdoing, or to make public the fruits of its labor. It’s worth noting that since OCE was created, the number of disciplinary actions taken by the House Ethics Committee increased fourfold. In the five years after OCE first started, the House Ethics Committee initiated 20 disciplinary actions. In the previous 10, by contrast, it initiated only five.
The good news, we are to believe, is that sanity quickly prevailed. Even Trump was aghast and tweeted loudly his intense displeasure that House Republicans would so openly seek to irrigate the swamp he’s vowed so improbably to drain. By Tuesday afternoon, House leaders Ryan and McCarthy asserted what nominal authority they actually possess and announced OCE would live to die another day. As a semi-sentient being, I take heart in the astonishing incompetence of it all. Yes, Republicans enjoy an absolute hammer lock on all political power — controlling the White House, Congress, the Senate, and soon the Supreme Court. But if this is what total control looks like, maybe the health care of 22 million Americans — recently insured under the admittedly imperfect Affordable Care Act (ACA) — might survive.
I mention the Affordable Care Act because Price, Trump’s nominee for the Department of Health and Human Services, has famously crafted detailed blueprints for its death and destruction. But that’s old news. New to me is Price’s membership in the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a kooky-whacky medical outfit with about 5,000 members that, among other things, published an article in its newsletter suggesting that President Obama deployed a “covert form of hypnosis” to win over voters vulnerable to “neuro-linguistic programming.” Less amusing, however, is the moral rage with which the group has condemned Medicare and Medicaid — evil and immoral — which provide health care to 57 million and 68 million elderly and low-income people, respectively.
The last time Republicans enjoyed such total control was back in 2003; that’s the last time they sought to “fix” Medicare, which provides health care for American seniors. That’s when the Republicans narrowly passed the now infamous “Part D” bill, which refers to the specific Medicare program that covers the purchase of prescription medications. Inserted into that legislation was language that explicitly prohibited Medicare from negotiating directly with pharmaceutical companies to secure the best prices possible on behalf of customers, not to mention taxpayers and the federal government. Depending on what study one cites, that you-can’t-negotiate clause has cost the feds anywhere from $332 to $563 billion in excess payments made to the pharmaceutical industry. In stark contrast, Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration are legally empowered to negotiate better prices for the drugs they buy. Guess what? Medicare Part D pays 73 percent more for drugs than Medicaid does and 80 percent more than the Vets Administration. With these stakes, it’s little wonder the pharmaceutical lobby has spent $150 million twisting arms and bending ears on Capitol Hill since 2003. Corruption — legal or otherwise — is clearly a bipartisan affliction, but in that time span, roughly 62 percent of Big Pharma’s graft and payola went to Republicans. To further belabor the obvious, the co-author of the Part D legislation — Republican Billy Tauzin of Louisiana — took a $2-million-a-year job as top lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America two years after the bill was passed.
Too bad the Office of Congressional Ethics didn’t exist back then. Maybe Tauzin would have gotten an after-the-fact letter of reprimand. If that’s what happened 13 years ago when Republicans sought to “reform” just one part of Medicare, imagine the billions to be made off the hides of the sick when they go after the Affordable Care Act. That was no errant eruption of political miscalculation. That was a strike of surgical precision.
And if that’s not a coincidence, it’ll have to do until the real thing comes along.