Lob­by­ists side­lined in health care draft

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY S.A. MILLER AND TOM HOW­ELL JR.

It took se­crecy to lock out the lob­by­ists.

The health care bill was drafted be­hind closed doors by Se­nate Repub­li­can lead­ers, draw­ing howls from Democrats who said they were shut out of the process.

Also left out­side, how­ever, was the army of health care in­dus­try lob­by­ists who helped draft Oba­macare in 2009 and 2010 but didn’t get a say this time.

To gov­ern­ment watch­dogs, the level of com­plaints from lob­by­ists is a sign of progress — the sound of the Wash­ing­ton swamp drain­ing. But the lob­by­ists, who rep­re­sent a vast ar­ray of in­ter­ests — in­clud­ing in­sur­ance com­pa­nies, pa­tient ad­vo­cates and busi­ness own­ers — ar­gue that Amer­i­cans’ voices aren’t be­ing heard in the back­rooms on Capi­tol Hill.

Dick Woodruff, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of fed­eral ad­vo­cacy at

the Amer­i­can Cancer So­ci­ety Cancer Ac­tion Net­work, said no­body from the health care in­dus­try had a seat at the ta­ble to write the bill.

“I’m not kidding. No­body,” said Mr. Woodruff.

He said block­ing in­dus­tries and groups that the leg­is­la­tion will af­fect was “bad for Amer­ica.”

James Gelfand, a top health care policy lob­by­ist for the ERISA In­dus­try Com­mit­tee, which rep­re­sents large em­ploy­ers, said he was left out too.

“By and large, this was a prod­uct that came from lead­er­ship and what was their vi­sion for what it ought to be,” he said.

Back in 2009 and 2010, it was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent story.

“I was go­ing to Capi­tol Hill like every day for meet­ings and dis­cus­sion groups … but I don’t know that that re­sulted in any changes to the un­der­ly­ing leg­is­la­tion,” said Mr. Gelfand. “I feel like at least peo­ple held my hand dur­ing 2009.”

Crack­ing down on lob­by­ing and spe­cial in­ter­est money was a top cam­paign prom­ise for Pres­i­dent Trump. Much of the bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man’s appeal was his self-funded pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that he said made him im­mune to the in­flu­ence-ped­dling in Wash­ing­ton.

He fol­lowed through on that prom­ise to “drain the swamp” by im­pos­ing a five-year ban on Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials work­ing as lob­by­ists and a life­time ban on lob­by­ing on be­half of for­eign gov­ern­ments.

Amer­i­cans gen­er­ally dis­trust lob­by­ists. A Gallup poll last year found that lob­by­ists were con­sid­ered the least trust­wor­thy and eth­i­cal out of 22 pro­fes­sions, fin­ish­ing be­hind mem­bers of Congress in the sur­vey.

Still, the lob­by­ing black­out for the Repub­li­can bill to re­place Oba­macare caught gov­ern­ment watch­dogs off guard.

It sounded too good to be true for Josh Sil­ver, di­rec­tor of Rep­re­sent.US, a group that ad­vo­cates for strict laws re­strict­ing lob­by­ists and spe­cial in­ter­est money in pol­i­tics.

“I would very much sup­port the idea of the health care in­dus­try be­ing blocked from the process. I’m just telling you I don’t be­lieve it,” he said. “You’d have to be born yes­ter­day to ac­tu­ally think that they haven’t been in­volved in this process.”

John Dun­bar, CEO of the Cen­ter for Public In­tegrity, said he was un­aware lob­by­ists were locked out of the process.

“I was un­der the im­pres­sion the usual in­dus­try sus­pects were in­te­gral to the draft­ing of the bill. I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised, how­ever, if public in­ter­est lob­by­ists were left out,” he said, draw­ing a dis­tinc­tion be­tween in­dus­try groups and ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Sheila Krumholz, chief ad­min­is­tra­tor at the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics, said lob­by­ists shouldn’t be al­lowed to write leg­is­la­tion but added that law­mak­ers should seek in­put from them as part of gath­er­ing a broad spec­trum of views.

“I think that is some­thing that re­ally galls Amer­i­cans that, you know, when a lob­by­ist has such ac­cess and in­flu­ence that they are al­lowed to draft the leg­is­la­tion and mem­bers sub­mit it,” she said.

“But if you talk to lob­by­ists, they’ll say, ‘That’s my job,’” said Ms. Krumholz.

Some an­a­lysts said stake­hold­ers did get a chance to make their thoughts known, though their in­volve­ment was dif­fer­ent from the writ­ing of Oba­macare.

“This process is a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. Ob­vi­ously, most of the out­side groups are op­pos­ing the ef­fort this time,” said Alex Co­nant, a part­ner at Fire­house Strate­gies whose clients in­clude in­sur­ers. “That said, the health in­sur­ers have been in reg­u­lar con­tact with the pol­i­cy­mak­ers on the Hill. They’ve cer­tainly been able to give a lot of their in­put and, un­like the doc­tors or the hos­pi­tals, have not been re­flex­ively op­posed to what the Repub­li­cans are try­ing to do.”

The breadth of the lob­by­ist shutout has drawn sto­ries in the Los Angeles Times and Na­tional Jour­nal Daily.

For­mer Rep. Henry A. Wax­man, a Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat who was one of the ar­chi­tects of Oba­macare, said Repub­li­cans kept out every in­ter­est group but the Democrats’ process put health care lob­by­ists and other stake­hold­ers front and cen­ter.

“Repub­li­cans have learned if peo­ple don’t know what’s in it … it makes their job eas­ier to leg­is­late in se­crecy,” he told Na­tional Jour­nal.

The Obama White House cut deals with broad sec­tions of the health care in­dus­try, some­times not alert­ing mem­bers of Congress un­til after­ward, Mr. Wax­man said.

Na­tional Jour­nal said there was an up­side to the lob­by­ist deal-mak­ing: The groups were pre­pared to back the bill once it was made public, giv­ing Democrats crit­i­cal al­lies in sell­ing it.

Those al­lies were miss­ing Thurs­day as Se­nate Repub­li­cans un­veiled their draft plan, though the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce did is­sue a state­ment call­ing the bill a good com­pro­mise.

Mr. Co­nant said hav­ing in­dus­try stake­hold­ers on board is crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of what­ever plan is ap­proved.

“It only works if peo­ple par­tic­i­pate,” he said. “The in­di­vid­ual mar­ket only works if health in­sur­ers de­cide to sell plans on them.”

Demo­cratic strate­gist Jim Manley, who was a top ad­viser to then-Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid when Oba­macare passed, said there was no com­par­i­son to the level of lob­by­ing then and now.

“Dur­ing the craft­ing of Oba­macare, they were all over the place — not only meet­ing with White House staff, but the groups had a heavy pres­ence on Capi­tol Hill, pro­vid­ing back­ground lob­by­ing and other help,” he said. “I’m not see­ing any of this this time around.”

He said lob­by­ists were get­ting a bum rap.

“It’s easy to de­mo­nize lob­by­ists in this day and age. But if they’re good, they’re pro­vid­ing fac­tual in­for­ma­tion to the Hill that they can use to try and craft leg­is­la­tion,” said Mr. Manley. “The goal of a good staffer is to dis­re­gard the hype and fig­ure out who best re­flects the views of con­stituents in their home states and is­sues you’re try­ing to wres­tle with.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

READY FOR DE­BATE: Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell re­leased his cau­cus’ health care bill on Thurs­day.

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