There has been a lot of commentary in recent weeks about the atmosphere of freak-out in Washington, D.C. Certainly the mainstream media act as if they’ve gone bat-guano crazy. Steady gal Peggy Noonan has her weekly Report on the Concussed. And if anyone looks concussed, it’s the old-consensus Republicans. There’s “deer in the headlights,” and then there’s “deer illuminated by your headlights, lying on its side in the road breathing fast and shallow because you just hit it.”
Leading Democrats, meanwhile, have entirely stopped making sense. In general, as it’s reported to the audience outside the Beltway, Congress looks like it’s kind of wandering in an irritable fog, not getting much done.
Now, part of that depiction is sheer bias on the part of the MSM, which doesn’t count it as “getting something done” when Congress cooperates with Trump in rolling back regulation. But part of it is the Hill Republicans’ very real failure to repeal Obamacare – and in the last few days, their failure to preserve funding for Trump’s border wall in a continuing resolution on spending.
Some brain food on how Washington works
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If you can’t imagine why merely electing Trump could have had this weird, paralyzing effect on Washington, I can heartily recommend the food for thought outlined this past week in a four-part series at The Last Refuge (Conservative Treehouse). (The links, in sequence, are here, here, here, and here. H/t to my friend Anne Lieberman.) Although I don’t think it explains everything, or accounts for everything that matters, it’s a really useful compendium of home truths about the way Washington functions today.
As blogger “sundance” says, there are a lot of “people taking notice of politics for perhaps the first time in their lives.” The CTH series is meant to explain how legislation really “gets done” in today’s Washington. And it’s not by the “Schoolhouse Rock” process remembered by Gen-Xers from their formative years.
Part I outlines how lobbyists, non-profits, and political law firms have taken over the crafting and promoting of legislation. These groups are joined at the hip with the big PACs (usually having the same funding sources), which are mostly dedicated to getting people elected.
So when you, as a candidate, have been shepherded by a set of PACs in your route to office, you’ve got an array of conjoined legislation-salesmen waiting for you to take a seat behind your desk in D.C., and get down to their business. Likewise, you can do their business for them by touting their legislative proposals – announcing them to the media, putting your name on bills – even when those proposals never go anywhere. The policy concepts advanced that way feed back into the electoral cycle. They energize the partisan electioneering machines and get out the vote.
Except Trump wasn’t plugged in to any of this. (Obama, Hillary, and the last two GOP candidates couldn’t have been more plugged in if they’d been stuck in a wall socket.)
Part I ends with a punch:
Remember, politicians don’t write laws – outside groups do.
If you asked a DC Senator or House Member to actually write a law they’d look back at you like a cow just licked them on the forehead. The politician would have no clue what you are asking them to do, and would immediately look to their staff as their closest reference point (the go-betweens) for outside lobbyist assistance.
This helps to understand when Senator Rand Paul, Mike Lee or Ted Cruz are “pitching” a “bill they’ve written”, it’s a gimmick – a ruse – a pure fundraising ploy. Nothing more. That’s why the bills they talk about (ie. El Chappo, Clean Repeal etc.) never actually materialize…. they are raising money, not legislation.
And that’s why Trump’s legislative inbox is empty.
Part II looks at the lobbying industry in D.C. – “K Street” – and its enormous stake in the “normal” functioning of old-consensus Washington. The monetary size of the effort has grown tremendously.
A genuine outsider
Yet, because Trump isn’t a usual suspect, he didn’t come pre-loaded with policy plug-ins to K Street.
There are almost zero organizational entities within K-Street presenting any legislative constructs or legislative briefs intended to advance any of Trump’s policy objectives. …
The DC legislative pipeline is devoid of any bill, brief or construct for any of the platform priorities of the Trump administration. Quite the opposite is true. Almost all of the K-Street institutions -which create the legislative priorities- are capable of producing a product that flows in [only] one direction.
Sundance summarizes it here:
There are no K-Street lobbyists demanding smaller/lesser government. There are no lobbyists walking in to House and Senate offices and asking for representatives to spend less money. The only people doing that are voters.
In Part III, the series looks at the need for the Trump administration to be able to coordinate the creation and promotion of policy legislation the way K Street does. Here, sundance predicts that Jim DeMint, who was basically ousted from the Heritage Foundation on Friday, will move into a job in the Trump administration in which he starts to fill that gap.
And in Part IV, sundance quotes a prominent D.C. lobbyist who predicted, back in 2016, that his industry’s busy role in manufacturing legislation would take a big hit if Trump were elected. Jack Burkman outlined presciently how worried (“concussed”) K Street would have to be, and the impact it could ultimately have:
Since Trump has no experience as a politician, not a single D.C. lobbying firm has any ties to Donald Trump.
“More than $4 billion in lobbying business could be lost overnight should Donald Trump become president,” says Burkman. “Decades of relationship-building in politics could be lost. And make no mistake every lobbyist in the town is worried.”
Again, I don’t think this explains everything. But it explains a lot. (As regards not explaining everything, one of the most important points is that the type of legislation sundance is talking about – the type the media are taunting Trump for not having more of – is major policy legislation. That’s a different animal from budgetary authority legislation. And the latter is extremely important as a nexus of political power. The elected representatives on the Hill are a magnet for lobbying and the policy-legislation industry because they wield the hammer over that. Which they do. Don’t get confused; some of them may not know how to write policy legislation – they may pass it without even knowing what’s in it – but they know how to be in charge of spending money.)
The key to understanding the explanation is to not mistake straight-up lobbying for the fully-integrated legislation industry that sundance is talking about.
There’s still a whole lot of straight-up lobbying going on in Washington. In some cases, in fact, it’s probably reached a level of desperation (even, at times, psychosis) like what we’re seeing with the media, and some Democrats and progressive-left activists. Run searches on lobbying and Trump, and you’ll see plenty of reports that lobbying is going on.
But (a) that doesn’t mean the lobbyists are getting into the Trump White House. Most of the lobbying since 20 January is actually on Capitol Hill. And (b), it definitely doesn’t mean the lobbyist legislation industry is at work.
The latter – the work of the legislation industry – is what has lost its seat of power in Trump’s Washington. Think about what that means for projects like “replacing Obamacare.” There’s no lobbying legislation industry for that. There are think-tankers with bright ideas, and willing legislators in the Freedom Caucus. But in this next part, we’ll see what the difference is between that mere skeleton, and the bloated, overstuffed effort it took to get Obamacare done in 2010.
The quintessential “legislation industry” product
To put the CTH series in focus, I want to just refresh your memory on what the work of the legislation industry looked like during the Obama years. Although it operated in every facet of federal policy, nothing illustrates it as beautifully as the passage of Obamacare in 2010.
Nancy Pelosi, of course, notoriously said of the Obamacare bill that “We have to pass it to see what’s in it.” That’s a nice encapsulation of elected officials’ role in policy legislation now – but it’s just the tip of the iceberg,
The Obamacare campaign was coordinated from every conceivable aspect, across left-wing non-profits, PACs, dark-money donors, professional lobbyists, law firms, marketing firms specializing in politics, select bureaucrats in key federal agencies, Democrats in Congress, and the Obama White House.
The legislation itself was such a behemoth because it catered to multiple stakeholders. Much of the radical-agenda language was written in by the non-profits. The non-profits and federal agencies (e.g., HHS and DOJ) brokered input from famous contributors like Jonathan “The American people are stupid” Gruber. Another big chunk of the language was insisted on by the drug- and health-industry and insurance-industry lobbies, which made sure the government had to buy their cooperation, with the mandates it was signing the people up for.
And it was all orchestrated in the final push by the Obama White House. Obama never did sell Obamacare to the voters; they remained skeptical (with a majority opposed) throughout. But his Oval Office enforcers – with Jim Messina on point – were the ones who dragged the whole apparatus from the keel, ruthlessly playing stakeholders off against each other as necessary to get it to the legislative finish line.
We’ve largely forgotten that all these shenanigans were known at the time. You might be surprised at how easy it is to reconstruct who did what; I include links here and just a few telling samples of exactly what the lobbying legislation industry looks like.
In 2011, Aaron Klein and Brenda J. Elliott traced the connections of Obamacare to the Soros-backed Tides Foundation, the Apollo Alliance, George Soros’s Economic Policy Institute, and a political marketing firm that has worked for Hugo Chavez and MoveOn.org, among others. One thing the Klein/Elliott research made clear was how far back the detailed planning for what became the Obamacare legislation went, and how long it had been shepherded and polished by the same people.
[Klein and Elliott’s book] “Red Army” reveals the principal author of the foundation for Obamacare is third generation progressive academic Jacob S. Hacker, a Yale professor who is an expert on the politics of U.S. health and social policy.
Hacker is author of Health Care for America, the centerpiece of the George Soros–funded Economic Policy Institute’s Agenda for Shared Prosperity. “Red Army” finds Hacker’s proposal for so-called guaranteed, affordable healthcare for all Americans is the foundation for Obama’s healthcare plan.
Hacker’s plan had its origins in the professor’s multiple other major policy papers on healthcare, including a 2001 plan for the Covering America project.
An enterprising marketing outfit, the Herndon Alliance, joined forces with the marketing firm that claimed Hugo Chavez as a client – American Environics – to market Obamacare.
“Red Army” documents how a little-known marketing outfit called the Herndon Alliance helped to market Obamacare, even provided suggestions on which words supporters should use the promote the bill.
Acceptable words include “quality affordable health care”; “American solutions”; “giving security and peace of mind”; “fair rules”; “government as watchdog”; “smart investments, investing in the future”; and “affordable health plans.”
Unacceptable words include “universal health care”; “Canadian style health care”; “Medicare for All”; “regulations”; “free”; “government or public health care”; and “wellness.”
American Environics, besides representing the Apollo Alliance (both entities were founded by the same two men, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger), merged with Fenton Communications, the marketing firm that represented the Tides Foundation, and provided marketing services to MoveOn. All of these organizations were key to getting Obama elected.
As with all these links, read the whole thing for an eye-opening refresher. (You’ll remember, “Yeah, I used to know that.”) But take note of this one additional point. Klein and Elliott’s work uncovered, of course, the pro-Obamacare activities of lobbying networks Healthcare-NOW, Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), and Health Care for America Now (HCAN), which billed itself – laughably – as the “grassroots” organization pushing for Obamacare. HCAN’s membership was a who’s who:
HCAN’s lead member organizations include ACORN; MoveOrg; AFSCME; Americans United for Change; and Planned Parenthood Federation of America; SEIU; United Food and Commercial Workers; and the Soros-funded Center for American Progress Action Fund, which is highly influential in advising the White House.
Keep these dedicated lobbying groups in mind, because we’re going to see in a minute here how they were treated in the final sprint to the Obamacare finish line.
The Klein/Elliott book is a window into the radical-activism history of the policy idea. But other chroniclers have pointed out that it took the industrial lobbyists in Washington to turn the Obamacare legislation into a real “thing.” Here’s Kevin Glass for National Review from 2012:
“After promising to conduct the health-care negotiations on C-SPAN,” a House Energy and Commerce Committee staffer tells National Review, “President Obama worked behind closed doors to cut deals with the various special-interest groups.” The health-care industry, for its part, was no longer focused on resisting a government intrusion into the private economy. It knew that an alliance between big business and big government could bear big fruits, so it loaded up with policy experts and lobbyists who would help it shape the legislation to its advantage. The American Hospital Association (AHA), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) have their fingerprints all over Obamacare.
Again, don’t fail to read the whole thing. Republicans were by no means the only ones who recognized that the big industry lobbyists had their fingerprints all over it.
Bill Moyers reported on it in the fall of 2009 – before the bill was even passed – and in 2010, the Sunlight Foundation tied it all together with the lurking presence of former Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin in the Obamacare negotiations.
Tauzin had departed Congress a few years before with the Medicare drug supplement legislation as a big notch on his belt, and became a high-profile lobbyist in the 2000s, usually for the pharmaceutical industry. His specialty, as the Sunlight Foundation noted, was exactly what Barack Obama had campaigned against in 2008: shepherding lobbyist legislation on Capitol Hill. Obama had even railed against Tauzin’s push for Medicare Part D as a bad example, in one of his campaign ads.
Tauzin’s job change became fodder for a campaign ad that then presidential candidate Barack Obama ran in the spring of 2008 simply titled “Billy.” It featured the candidate, sleeves rolled up, talking to a salon of gasping Americans about the ways of Washington. “The pharmaceutical industry wrote into the prescription drug plan that Medicare could not negotiate with drug companies. And you know what, the chairman of the committee, who pushed the law through, went to work for the pharmaceutical industry making $2 million a year.”
Now Tauzin, as a lobbyist for Big Pharma, was a major player in the horse-trading over Obamacare.
Tauzin was not just any major player. He was a regular participant in White House meetings with industry lobbyists on Obamacare. And those meetings became the vehicle through which the Obama administration pressed levers in Congress to get the legislation through. (You won’t be surprised to recall that Obama refused to release details of those meetings when congressional Republicans asked for them in 2011.)
Indeed, there was a noticeable shift from coordination by the White House with progressive activist groups, to coordination with the industry lobbyists, as the process wore on.
According to Ari Berman at The Nation, writing in 2011, groups like HCAN and CAF (see Klein and Elliott above) – groups from the networks that had plumped early for the Obamacare policy ideas, and helped Obama get elected – were told to shut up and play ball at this stage. When they objected to some of the things demanded by the industry lobbyists, they were basically told to stuff it:
The administration deputized [Jim] Messina as the top liaison to the Common Purpose Project. The coveted invite-only, off-the-record Tuesday meetings at the Capitol Hilton became the premier forum where the administration briefed leading progressive groups, including organizations like the AFL-CIO, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress, on its legislative and political strategy. Theoretically, the meetings were supposed to provide a candid back-and-forth between outside groups and administration officials, but Messina tightly controlled the discussions and dictated the terms of debate (Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake memorably dubbed this the “veal pen”). “Common Purpose didn’t make a move without talking to Jim,” says one progressive strategist. During the healthcare fight, Messina used his influence to try to stifle any criticism of Baucus or lobbying by progressive groups that was out of sync with the administration’s agenda, according to Common Purpose participants. “Messina wouldn’t tolerate us trying to lobby to improve the bill,” says Richard Kirsch, former national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the major coalition of progressive groups backing reform. Kirsch recalled being told by a White House insider that when asked what the administration’s “inside/outside strategy” was for passing healthcare reform, Messina replied, “There is no outside strategy.”
The inside strategy pursued by Messina, relying on industry lobbyists and senior legislators to advance the bill, was directly counter to the promise of the 2008 Obama campaign, which talked endlessly about mobilizing grassroots support to bring fundamental change to Washington. But that wasn’t Messina’s style—instead, he spearheaded the administration’s deals with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, particularly the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), one of the most egregious aspects of the bill. “They cared more about their relationship with the healthcare industry than anyone else,” says one former HCAN staffer. “It was shocking to see. …”
— Ammosexual Deetz (@tahDeetz) September 19, 2012
Jim Messina upping the ick factor in a viral Obamacare promo from 2012. (H/t Twitchy)
This is the lobbyist legislation industry at work. This is what doesn’t exist in Trump’s Washington, because he didn’t ride in on the equivalent of a Soros-backed Tides Foundation, Apollo Alliance, HCAN, CAF, a handful of marketing firms who’ve worked for Hugo Chavez and get-out-the-vote PACs, a bullpen of northeastern liberal public-policy gurus (Hacker, Gruber), and a string of industry lobbying firms running down K Street with former politicians and congressional staffers on their rosters.
Trump didn’t even ride in on Koch brothers money, much less with the assistance of Karl Rove. He just got a whole bunch of Americans to vote for him – enough to get to 304 electoral votes.
We’ll let our friend Billy Tauzin have the last word – for now. He’s still out there lobbying. It sounds like he figures he can outlast the “drain the swamp” effort:
OVERHEARD — BILLY TAUZIN, the former Louisiana Democratic congressman turned lobbyist, at Tosca, “Drain the swamp? I’m an alligator. I just go eat the fish at the bottom.”