Puppets in Congress

This article appeared in print on November 17, 2009, on page A32 of the New York edition of the NY Times.

For a depressing example of how members of Congress can be spoon-fed the views and even the exact words of high-powered lobbying firms, consider remarks inserted into the Congressional Record after the debate and vote on health care reform in the House.

As Robert Pear reported in The Times on Sunday, statements inserted into the official record by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by lobbyists working for Genentech, a large biotechnology company that expects to prosper under some of the provisions in the reform legislation. The company estimates that 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats picked up some of its talking points.

The comforting news is that none of the ghostwritten material sought to change the contents of the bill, which was not open to much revision during the debate. Rather, the statements were inserted into the Congressional Record as revisions and extensions of briefer remarks made by legislators on the House floor. Still, there they are in the official record for historians to read, or perhaps a judge trying to determine the lawmakers’ intent in passing this bill.

The apparent goal was to show that, even though there were sharp divisions between the parties on the overall reform bill (only one Republican voted for it), there was bipartisan support for provisions relating to drugs produced by the biotechnology industry. One provision, for example, would allow generic competition to expensive biological drugs but only after the original manufacturer had enjoyed 12 years of exclusive use, a generous period by anyone’s standards.

An e-mail message from one top lobbyist urged his colleagues to conduct “aggressive outreach” to Congressional staff members to secure as many supportive statements from their bosses “as humanly possible.” Sure enough, Republicans who denounced the overall bill, said in their industry-fed statements that the biological drug provisions struck “the appropriate balance.”

It is disturbing that the industry was able to so easily shape the official record to its liking. It is even more disturbing that so many members of Congress were willing to parrot the industry talking points.

This article appeared in print on November 17, 2009, on page A32 of the New York edition of the NY Times.

MORE —> http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/opinion/17tue3.html


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