How a Bad Bill Becomes Law

Bernie Sanders

Remem­ber the ele­men­tary school les­son How a Bill Becomes a Law”? Well, George W. Bush and Repub­li­can Lead­er­ship in Con­gress rede­fined law­mak­ing when they forced their Medicare law through Con­gress. And a brief look at the gnarled twists and turns tak­en as this bill became law should make any stu­dent of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy shudder.

Step one: Use your bill to raise massive amounts of political cash from friendly corporate interests.

Step One Use your bill to raise mas­sive amounts of polit­i­cal cash from friend­ly cor­po­rate inter­ests. On June 19, 2002, two days after Repub­li­cans unveiled their new Medicare bill, the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try staged a fundrais­er for Pres­i­dent Bush and the Repub­li­can Par­ty in which a record-break­ing $30 mil­lion was raised in one night. British drug giant Glax­o­SmithK­line, the chief cor­po­rate fundrais­er of the event, coughed up $250,000, as did the drug com­pa­nies’ trade group, PhRMA.

Step Two Com­plete­ly ignore the will of the nation’s elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives. In this case, on July 25, 2003, a strong bipar­ti­san coali­tion in the House approved allow­ing Amer­i­cans to buy safe, FDA-approved med­i­cines at 25 per­cent to 50 per­cent less than U.S. prices by access­ing the well-reg­u­lat­ed mar­kets of 26 devel­oped coun­tries. Despite strong sup­port in the Sen­ate for a sim­i­lar pro­vi­sion, the White House had this lan­guage stripped from the final Medicare bill. On the oth­er hand, at the request of drug com­pa­nies, a pro­hi­bi­tion on Medicare nego­ti­at­ing low­er prices for our seniors was added to the bill.

Step Three Ram your bill through even if you don’t have the votes. Let’s see how it works in prac­tice. At 5:53 a.m. on Novem­ber 22, House Repub­li­cans passed their Medicare bill by a vote of 220 – 215. By all accounts, it was a his­toric night in the Capi­tol. Under House rules, time allowed for vot­ing is 17 min­utes, at which point vot­ing is cut off and can­not be changed. On this occa­sion, vot­ing was left open for an unprece­dent­ed three hours while Repub­li­can lead­ers, includ­ing Health and Human Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Tom­my Thomp­son, cajoled and arm-twist­ed to get the votes the White House demanded.

Rep. Nick Smith (R‑Mich.) lat­er pub­licly stat­ed that he was encour­aged to change his no” vote to yes” by Repub­li­can lead­ers who assured him that busi­ness inter­ests” would con­tribute $100,000 to his son’s cam­paign to suc­ceed him in Con­gress. When that didn’t work, encour­age­ment turned to threats and he was told that if he didn’t change his vote they would work to make sure his son nev­er gets to Con­gress. Smith held firm and Repub­li­can strong-arm tac­tics are now under inves­ti­ga­tion by the House Ethics Com­mit­tee. Oth­er Repub­li­cans did ulti­mate­ly switch their votes, giv­ing the White House a win.

Step Four Hood­wink mem­bers of your own par­ty who have reser­va­tions. Through­out the debate, many con­ser­v­a­tives were con­cerned about the poten­tial cost of a new pre­scrip­tion drug ben­e­fit. The White House pledged that the Medicare bill would cost no more than $395 bil­lion. Two months after the pres­i­dent signed it into law he sub­mit­ted a bud­get to Con­gress that put the esti­mate at, oops, $530 bil­lion. And with its glar­ing lack of cost-con­trols and its pro­hi­bi­tion on price nego­ti­a­tion, it like­ly will cost far more.

Step Five Stick to your sto­ry regard­less of the facts. In his State of the Union address, the pres­i­dent said, For a month­ly pre­mi­um of about $35, most seniors … can expect to see their drug bills cut rough­ly in half.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that claim is sim­ply untrue. The real­i­ty is that most seniors will see their drug bills cut only by about one-third — and many even less. In fact, the Con­sumers Union esti­mates that many will pay more in 2007 for their med­i­cines under the plan than they do today with­out it.

Step Six Turn your work on the bill to your own per­son­al gain. School­child­ren, pay close atten­tion to this one. With­in a month of the bill becom­ing law the chair­man of the House Com­merce Com­mit­tee, Rep. Bil­ly Tauzin (R‑La.), was report­ed­ly offered a $2 mil­lion a year job by PhRMA (remem­ber, the industry’s lead lob­by­ing group). Accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post, Tauzin is expect­ed to take the PhRMA offer and leave the House before his term expires. Anoth­er key play­er — Thomas Scul­ly, the imme­di­ate for­mer head of the Cen­ter for Medicare and Med­ic­aid Ser­vices and White House point per­son on the Medicare bill — recent­ly left his post to work for law firms that rep­re­sent phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and oth­er health­care interests.

Sev­enth and Final Step Use the taxpayer’s own mon­ey to edu­cate” them if they aren’t buy­ing your sto­ry. Recent­ly, Pres­i­dent Bush launched a $23 mil­lion adver­tis­ing blitz — all at tax­pay­er expense — to tout the Medicare bill. A media firm work­ing on his reelec­tion cam­paign will get a cut of the pie for buy­ing air­time for the gov­ern­ment to tout the new Medicare law — a sweet­heart deal and a handy piece of cam­paign pro­pa­gan­da at tax­pay­er expense.

Well, there it is. The new way a bill becomes a law when George W. Bush and the Repub­li­cans con­trol the gov­ern­ment. Ques­tions anyone?

Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) was elect­ed to the U.S. Sen­ate in 2006 after serv­ing 16 years in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. He is the longest serv­ing inde­pen­dent mem­ber of Con­gress in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Elect­ed May­or of Burling­ton, Vt., by 10 votes in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 elec­tion as Ver­mon­t’s at-large mem­ber in Con­gress, Sanders lec­tured at the John F. Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment at Har­vard and at Hamil­ton Col­lege in upstate New York. Read more at his web­site.
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