Bill Moyers
December 14, 2012
Bill Moyers Essay: Washington's Revolving Door

BILL MOYERS: Listening to Yves Smith and Bruce Bartlett talk about the culture of Washington, with insiders writing the rules to protect the privileged and the powerful, I couldn't help but think of this small item in politico last week: “Elizabeth Fowler is leaving the White House for a senior-level position leading ‘global health policy’ at Johnson & Johnson's government affairs and policy group.”

When I read that item I had an “ah-ha moment.” A flashback to three years ago and our coverage of the early stages of Obama’s healthcare reform. Liz Fowler was at the center of the action. Here’s an excerpt:

BILL MOYERS on Bill Moyers Journal: Take a close look at that woman sitting behind Montana Senator Max Baucus. He's the Democrat who's the Chairman of the Finance Committee. Liz Fowler is her name. And now get this. She used to work for WellPoint, the largest health insurer in the country. She was Vice President of Public Policy. And now she's working for the very committee with the most power to give her old company and the entire industry exactly what they want.

BILL MOYERS: After ObamaCare passed, Senator Baucus himself, one of the biggest recipients in congress of campaign cash from the industry, boasted that the architect of this legislation was none other than the industry insider, Liz fowler:

SEN. MAX BAUCUS: And I want to single out one person. And that one person is sitting next to me. Her name is Liz Fowler. Liz Fowler is my chief health counsel. Liz Fowler has put my team together, health care team. […] She put together the White Paper last November, 2008. Eighty-seven page document which became the basis, the foundation, the blueprint from which almost all health care measures in all bills on both sides of the aisle came. She is an amazing person. She is a lawyer; she is a Ph.D. She is just so decent. She is always smiling, she is always working, always available to help any Senator, any staff. And I just thank Liz from the bottom of my heart.

BILL MOYERS: The health care industry was very pleased, too. Early on in the evolution of Obamacare, the Senate and the White House cut deals that protected the interests of the health care industry, especially the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Lobbyists beat back such popular proposals as a public option, an expansion of Medicare, and a requirement that drug companies negotiate the prices they charge.

As the eagle-eyed Glenn Greenwald, wrote in the Guardian last week, “the bill’s mandate that everyone purchase the products of the private health insurance industry … was a huge gift to that industry.”

And Liz Fowler? The White House brought her over from congress to oversee the new law’s implementation; first at the department of health and human services, and then as special assistant to the president for healthcare and economic policy.

And now, it’s through the revolving door once more. Christmas has come a little early for the peripatetic Ms. Fowler, as she leaves the White House for the pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson.

Glenn Greenwald writes, Ms. Fowler “will receive ample rewards from that same industry as she peddles her influence in government and exploits her experience with its inner workings to work on that industry’s behalf, all of which,” Glenn Greenwald says, “has been made perfectly legal by the same insular, Versailles-like Washington culture that so lavishly benefits from all of this.”

Now, friends of Liz Fowler will say this is harsh. That she was the talented, intelligent protégé of two liberal democrats, Representative Pete Stark and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, both of whom believed in public service as a calling. That she was seriously devoted to crafting a health care reform proposal that would pass. I don’t doubt that. But it’s not the point.

She’s emblematic of the revolving door culture that inevitably means, when push comes to shove, that corporate interests will have the upper hand in the close calls that determine public policy. It’s how insiders fix the rules of the market, no matter which party is in power.

The last time we looked, 34 former staff members of Senator Baucus, whose finance committee has life and death power over industry’s wish list, were registered lobbyists; more than a third of them working on health care issues in the private sector.

And the revolving door spins even faster after a big election like the one we had last month, as scores of officials, elected representatives and their staffs vacate their offices after the ballots are counted. Many of them head for K Street and the highest bidder. That, too, brings an “ah-ha moment.” When President Obama early on in his administration swore he would get tough.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As of today lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any other administration in history. If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on, or in the agencies you lobbied during the previous two years. When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president. And there will be a ban on gifts by lobbyists to anyone serving in the administration as well.

BILL MOYERS: The President signed reforms that are supposed to slow down the revolving door, increase transparency and limit the contact ex-officials and officeholders can have with their former colleagues.

But those rules and regulations have loopholes big enough for Santa and his sleigh to drive through, reindeer included. The market keeps growing for insiders poised to make a killing when they leave government to help their new bosses get what they want from government. That’s the great thing about the revolving door: one good turn deserves another.

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