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JONATHAN CHAIT

Will Democrats lose their way on K Street?

They should be changing the game, not playing along with the lobbyists.

January 21, 2007|JONATHAN CHAIT

MOST OF us have probably always suspected that when fresh-faced young members of Congress get to Washington, there is a quiet, whispering voice urging them to abandon their youthful idealism and acclimate themselves to the ways of the capital. Now I know it's true, because one of those voices decided to conduct his seduction in broad daylight.

Last week, the Washington Post, the bulletin board of the political establishment, published an Op-Ed article imparting advice to incoming Democratic members of Congress. Its author was Toby Moffett, a former Democratic member of Congress from Connecticut.

Moffett's advice, which was written in bullet-point form, began with just a slightly unsettling undertone. He urged new members not to go home too often, to make friends in the building and to cross the aisle. This is typical good-old-boy establishment stuff. The mask was pulled off completely by point No. 4: "Befriend some lobbyists."

Befriend some lobbyists? Here it was, the voice of the devil, inexplicably doing his business out in the open.

The final, parodic heights of the exercise were reached when the reader made it to the bottom of the article, where the author was identified as working at "the Livingston Group, a lobbying and consulting firm." Now that Democrats have retaken control of Congress after 12 years as a beaten-down minority, all the pundits are asking whether they'll succumb to the temptation to be nasty to their former oppressors on K Street. I think the real temptation, as Moffett illustrates, is to be too nice.

Consider one source of temptation: the pharmaceutical industry. Big Pharma decided long ago that Republicans were going to control Washington forever. It threw its lot in with the GOP, giving Republicans the overwhelming share of the industry's campaign donations. The result was a bonanza of friendly legislation, most notoriously a Medicare bill written in 2003 largely by industry shills.

Today, of course, pharmaceutical companies are understandably nervous. They are frantically trying to get in with the new majority party, scooping up Democrats to work as lobbyists and expressing their newfound appreciation for liberal ideals in the form of donations. Pfizer is bankrolling a series of public forums as part of a campaign titled "Ceasefire on Health Care."

Oh, now you want a cease-fire? How convenient. A cease-fire, of course, is not the same thing as peace. Peace is a long-term accommodation. A cease-fire is a tactical move, usually called for by the losing side in a conflict so it can regather its forces and resume the offensive when the time is right.

How are Democrats responding to this patently disingenuous maneuver? Not by crushing their enemies. Take the Medicare law. It's stuffed with massive subsidies for industries whose main claim to public support is that they were pals with the GOP. The best policy and the best politics would be to gut the Medicare law and write a cheaper, more efficient version.

Instead, Democrats have confined themselves to one provision in the law, a measure that forbids the government from negotiating for cheaper prices when it buys drugs for Medicare. And even there, the Democrats' reform is pretty ineffectual. The Veterans Affairs Department negotiates great deals in part because it can pick and choose which drugs it buys. Democrats don't even propose to let Medicare do that -- they want Medicare to negotiate but not have the right to drop medications.

And obviously, when you're committed to buying something, you lose your leverage. I'm envisioning negotiations that look like this:

Government: We think you should charge less.

Drug company: No.

Government: [long pause] Please?

Now, to be fair, there are plenty of good reasons why Democrats can't just wipe clean all the excesses of GOP control -- not least being that Republicans still hold the White House. The danger is that they'll stop wanting to do so.

The last big wave of reform Democrats came in 1974, after Watergate. They were young and famously idealistic. One was named Toby Moffett.

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jchait@latimescolumnists.com

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