Going back at least to Professor Woodrow Wilson’s classic study, Congressional Government (1885) people trying to make sense of the U.S. Congress have focused on the role of interest groups (or “special interests” in today’s political discourse) in shaping public policy in ways that often run counter to the “public interest.” Interest groups (like the health insurance industry, or coal mining companies) “lobby,” speaking privately to legislators, giving advice on particular issues of concern to them, thereby shaping bills to protect their special interests. And of course legislators are always looking for campaign contributions, and interest groups are happy to provide them.
But the current Republican Congress seems to have abandoned interest group politics on the two biggest issues this year: health care and tax reform. In both cases they have avoided both closed and open committee hearings and largely shut out the interest groups most concerned (doctors, hospitals and insurance companies in the case of health care; anybody who pays taxes in the case of tax reform). Instead, they have worked with blitzkrieg speed to craft bills that will please the thirty percent of the electorate that makes up the Republican base, seemingly without regard for cautionary voices from the special interests.
So this is a good thing, right? Well, no. Public policy that effectively addresses public problems actually requires accurate information, and this often comes from practitioners. That those practitioners have their own interests is true, but they also often know best about the particular problems they deal with. So cutting them out of the loop makes for policies unmoored to reality.
Having convinced their base that Obamacare is a disaster, the Republicans simply didn’t listen to pleas from the insurance companies for stability in the insurance markets, repeatedly moving the goalposts and making it impossible for insurers to plan even a year ahead.
The attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) is a good example. Having convinced their base that the law is a disaster, the Republicans simply didn’t listen to pleas from the insurance companies for stability in the insurance markets, repeatedly moving the goalposts and making it impossible for insurers to plan even a year ahead. They disregarded the reports from hospitals that the expansion of Medicaid meant millions more people could afford health care. Instead, Republicans repeatedly tried to cut back on Medicaid. Other examples of this sort of thing abound. And the current push for tax reform shows the same tendencies.
This seems to be the pattern for what we may call high profile legislation, where legislators are addressing hot-button issues on which they have campaigned. Here, nothing trumps pleasing the base, even if it leads to ill-considered legislation.
But there is another level of the legislative process: what happens under the radar. My own congressman, Tom Marino (R-PA) recently gained the kind of fame he wasn’t seeking when Sixty Minutes and the Washington Post collaborated on an investigative story of how he patiently and quietly maneuvered, over several years, to force a change in Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) enforcement powers, making it much harder for the DEA to block shipments of prescription opioids when there is a risk of diversion into the illicit drug trade.
Of course, Marino denies wrongdoing, but there is ample evidence that he consulted closely with representatives of large pharmaceutical companies and crafted the legislation to their specifications. Oh, and he also got tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from them, even though he represents a thoroughly Republican—and gerrymandered— district.
So there’s the Republican Congress for you. Pay your money and take your choice: high profile legislation without benefit of expertise, or below-the-radar legislation based on nefarious deals.
And if you don’t pay, you get neither.