healthchart

The lede to this WASHINGTON POST story on health care says all we need to know about the purported debate over creating a public plan to compete with private health insurance companies:

The nation's largest insurers, hospitals and medical groups have hired more than 350 former government staff members and retired members of Congress in hopes of influencing their old bosses and colleagues.

Read the whole story, if you can stomach it. Whatever your position on health care, it’s hard to call this process anything like democracy. Industry lobbyists are spending $1.4 million a day. A day. PhRMA, the drug industry’s umbrella group, spent $7 million in the first quarter. Pfizer dropped $6 million. Gee, wonder why Congress is having such trouble agreeing on an idea that 72 percent of Americans already support?

But it gets better.

Nearly half of the insiders previously worked for the key committees and lawmakers, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), debating whether to adopt a public insurance option opposed by major industry groups. At least 10 others have been members of Congress, such as former House majority leaders Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), both of whom represent a New Jersey pharmaceutical firm.

In case you missed that, the former leaders of both the Democratic and Republican House caucuses are lobbying for drug companies. Can’t imagine how we’ve never made progress on this supposedly intractable debate.

Baucus, who leads the Senate Finance Committee, has supposedly been brokering compromise between lawmakers who want a public plan and those who don’t. In a closed June 10 meeting, according to the Post, Baucus’ staff sat down to hash things out with industry lobbyists—which included two of his former chiefs of staff. In fact, more than 50 former Finance Committee staffers are now paid health industry lobbyists. Shockingly, the committee remains the primary stumbling block for getting a bill with a public plan to the Senate floor.

These policymakers-turned-lobbyists tell us that there’s nothing fishy here: public policy in general and health policy in particular is a terribly complicated business that demands an expertise few people have. Most people who have that expertise got it while working in government, so of course lobbying firms would hire them.

Sure, that makes sense—if you assume that these firms have no vested interested in maintaining the status quo for their $2 trillion industry. But in the real world, when a wildly profitable industry—drug companies vie with oil for the largest bottom line every year—drops $1.4 million a day on dozens of former staffers for the very committee that is now blocking reform, common sense says it’s some bullshit.

—KAI WRIGHT

UPDATE: The POST charts the circle of influence...