An eleventh-hour loophole in the "fiscal cliff" deal confirms our worst suspicions about how Congress operates
The inauguration of a president is one of those spectacles of democracy that can make us remember we’re part of something big and enduring. So for a few hours this past Monday, the pomp and circumstance inspired us to think that government of, by, and for the people really is just that, despite the predatory threats that stalk it.
But the mood didn’t last. Every now and then, as the cameras panned upward, the Capitol dome towering over the ceremony was a reminder of something the good feeling of the moment couldn’t erase. It’s the journalist’s curse to have a good time spoiled by the reality beyond the pageantry. Just a couple of days before the inaugural festivities, The New York Times published some superb investigative reporting by the team of Eric Lipton and Kevin Sack, and their revelations were hard to forget, even at a time of celebration.
The story told us of a pharmaceutical giant called Amgen and three senators so close to it they might be entries on its balance sheet: Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and that powerful committee’s ranking Republican, Orrin Hatch. A trio of perpetrators who treat the United States treasury as if it were a cash-and-carry annex of corporate America.
The Times story described how Amgen got a huge hidden gift from unnamed members of Congress and their staffers. They slipped an eleventh-hour loophole into the New Year’s Eve deal that kept the government from going over the fiscal cliff. When the sun rose in the morning, there it was, a richly embroidered loophole for Amgen that will cost taxpayers a cool half a billion dollars.
Amgen is the world’s largest biotechnology firm, a drug maker that sells a variety of medications. The little clause they secretly sneaked into the fiscal cliff bill gives the company two more years of relief from Medicare cost controls for certain drugs used by patients who are on kidney dialysis, including a pill called Sensipar, manufactured by Amgen.
The provision didn’t mention Amgen by name, but according to reporters Lipton and Sack, the news that it had been tucked into the fiscal cliff deal “was so welcome that the company’s chief executive quickly relayed it to investment analysts.” Tipping them off, it would seem, to a jackpot in the making.
Amgen has 74 lobbyists on its team in Washington and lobbied hard for that loophole, currying favor with friends at the White House and on Capitol Hill. The Times reporters traced its “deep financial and political ties” to Baucus, McConnell and Hatch, “who hold heavy sway over Medicare payment policy.”
All three have received hefty campaign donations from the company whose bottom line mysteriously just got padded at taxpayer expense. Since 2007, Amgen employees and its political action committee have contributed nearly $68,000 to Senator Baucus, $73,000 to Senator McConnell’s campaigns, and $59,000 to Senator Hatch.
And lo and behold, among those 74 Amgen lobbyists are the former chief of staff to Senator Baucus and the former chief of staff to Senator McConnell. You get the picture: Two guys nurtured at public expense, paid as public servants, disappear through the gold-plated revolving door of Congress and presto, return as money changers in the temple of crony capitalism.
Inside to welcome them is a current top aide to Senator Hatch, one who helped weave this lucrative loophole. He used to work as a health policy analyst for — you guessed it — Amgen.
So the trail winds deeper into the sordid swamp beneath that great Capitol dome, a sinkhole where shame has all but disappeared. As reporters Lipton and Sack remind us, just weeks before this backroom betrayal of the public interest by elected officials and the mercenaries they have mentored, Amgen pleaded guilty to fraud. Look it up: fraud means trickery, cheating and duplicity. Amgen agreed to pay $762 million in criminal and civil penalties; the company had been caught illegally marketing another one of its drugs.
The fact that their puppet master had been the subject of fines and a massive federal investigation mattered not to its servile pawns in the Senate, where pomp and circumstance are but masks for the brute power of money.
Peter Welch, Vermont’s Democratic congressman, has just introduced bipartisan legislation to repeal the half billion–dollar giveaway to Amgen. Its co-sponsors include Republican Richard Hanna of New York and Democrats Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Bruce Braley of Iowa.
The Amgen deal “confirms the American public’s worst suspicions of how Congress operates,” Representative Welch told us this week. “As the nation’s economy teetered on the edge of a Congressional-created fiscal cliff, lobbyists for a private, for-profit company seized an opportunity to feed at the public trough. It’s no wonder cockroaches and root canals are more popular than Congress.”
In his inaugural address, Barack Obama said the commitments we make to each other through Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security don’t make us a nation of takers. But the actions of Amgen and its cronies under the dome on Capitol Hill show who the real takers are — not those who look to government for support in old age and hard times but the ones at the top whose avarice and lust for profit compel them to take as much as they can from that government at the expense of everyone else.
Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. More Michael Winship.
More Related Stories
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
- In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance
- Code Pink activist berates Obama at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11