Among the many reasons Americans now rank Congress somewhere below cockroaches in public approval are these: It can’t get anything done on time, everything comes down to last-minute negotiations behind closed doors, and there’s usually something smelly hidden in the deal they pass off as a great accomplishment.
A recent case in point is the negotiations that resulted in a deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” That unnatural obstacle, created by Congress, included tax increases and spending cuts due to hit on Jan. 1. One might have hoped the negotiators would have confined themselves to matters that were hitting deadlines.
Even then, the nation would have been better served by more open debate. The fiscal cliff deal, for example, also included an extension of the wind energy tax credit, which had been due to expire Jan. 1. For the past year, investments in wind energy have been drying up because of the expiration date. On again/off again policies like this are costly in terms of money wasted and momentum lost, but the public saw and heard little about the decision.
But the most egregious provision in the fiscal cliff deal was a straight giveaway to a special interest that had nothing to do with expiring tax rates.
To condense a story only followed by health care policy wonks and those with a vested interest: In 2008 Congress sought to save money by changing the way Medicare reimburses for kidney dialysis. Under the new rules, one of the products of pharmaceutical giant Amgen was due to be ineligible for reimbursement in 2014. Amgen’s lobbyists — it has 74 of them, The New York Times reports — pushed its friends in Washington for a reprieve.
Those friends include both Republicans and Democrats, especially on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare and too often has acted more like a subsidiary of the health care industry than a watchdog on behalf of taxpayers. Somewhere in the fiscal cliff negotiations, Amgen’s friends delivered a two-year extension for Amgen — one which, the Times reports, will end up costing Medicare $500 million.
It’s a lesson worth remembering: For all the loud voices we hear calling on the government to spend less on programs like Medicare, those who profit from that spending have voices too. They are heard in quiet conversations with influential public officials, and their talk is backed up by large contributions to congressional campaign accounts.
Unfortunately, such funny business is more the rule than the exception in Washington today. There’s so much money on the table, and so many details in the legislation, that it’s too easy to steer lucrative favors to special interests - especially when legislation is being written and negotiated in the dark. That’s why cliff-hanger deals should be avoided and laws should be written in the light of day, through a transparent committee process.