The “public interest” and the “public option”

The latest “hard-hitting research” by so-called campaign finance reformers focuses on the very timely issue of health care legislation and is, of course, cleverly titled “Legislating Under the Influence.”

Common Cause released the report this week under the larger banner of continuing to “expose how big-lobbyist money is corrupting public policy.”

And while the report does a very thorough job of citing the amount of money various groups in the health care industry have donated to legislators, it fails to make — or even address — its supposed larger point: the connection between campaign contributions and lawmakers’ votes. It also fails to place the amounts spent in perspective or to note the amounts spent by groups and individuals with presumably different views, and it lumps together individuals, PACs, and whole “industries” who in fact have radically different views on health system reform.

Rather, it relies on untested and arguably untrue assumptions about the nature of the legislative process and campaign finance in general, in addition to cashing in on the latest victory for “reformers” by quoting language from the Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. opinion on the “serious risk of actual bias.”

However, it’s important to note that Caperton was a case of supposed judicial bias, which is potentially concerning. Caperton has no impact whatsoever on legislative bias, which is natural and it’s almost ridiculous to assume otherwise. How many politicians have no agenda or thoughts on major issues of the day? Voters expect their candidates to take firm, passionate stances on issues – not remain detached and as indifferent on an outcome as a judge. Perhaps by utilizing alarming language that would lead someone to believe that a risk of bias equals complete buying of votes, Common Cause hopes to distract readers from the fact that this report in no way proves that.

In fact, all the report does is re-state rather mundane facts that are common knowledge among anyone remotely involved in politics at any level, including the fact that the health care industry contributes a significant amount of money to politicians of both parties and that that amount has increased over the past eight years. Of course, health care reform is an increasingly popular issue, and the “health care industry” as defined by the report includes a wide variety of occupations and organizations, but no consideration or context for this is given.

The reality is, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that health care was the largest industry in America in 2006, providing 14 million jobs and that “7 of the 20 fastest growing occupations are health care related.” We are constantly being told that health care reform is the number one concern of lawmakers and citizens, yet the Common Cause report finds it both shocking and appalling that the health care industry would want support candidates that share their concerns and priorities as opposed to candidates that could put them out of business.

The industry has contributed about $373 million since 2000. Approximately $6 billion has been contributed to  congressional races since 2000. So, the industry contributed about six percent of the total. But of course, the industry isn’t really an industry. It includes “health insurance, pharmaceuticals and health products, hospitals and HMOs, and health professionals” (presumably including doctors, nurses, dentists, chiropractors, and others). Anyone who knows anything about health care knows that all of those groups have various and often polar opposite interests (as with hospitals, who seek to maximize reimbursements for care, and health insurers, who seek to minimize it). Even within sub-categories, there are often opposing interests; for example: where one hospital challenges the Certificate of Need Application filed by another, or as where medical doctors seek to limit competition from other providers.

Moreover, the interests within each particular category aren’t really even interests. Common Cause has added together people of very different philosophies who are often not giving out of “industry” concerns, as when a nurse contributes $100 to Sen. Debbie Stabenow because the nurse is pro-choice on abortion, while a mid-level hospital manager contributes $100 to her opponent, Spencer Abraham, because he believes in cutting individual income tax rates. Meanwhile, the biggest part of the donations covered come from “health professionals,” presumably doctors. So Doctor Jones contributes $1,000 to Sen. Sherrod Brown because he favors national health care with a single payer, and Doctor Smith contributes $1,000 to Brown’s opponent, Mike DeWine, because he opposes national health care — and both are lumped in as “health professionals.”

It appears that Common Cause includes contributions to people who are not even current members. As near as we can tell, they are including all contributions, even to people no longer in Congress, or even who were never in Congress. (note, e.g that Appendix A lists amounts given to John Sununu, Gordon Smith, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Mike Ferguson, Vito Fossella, Barbara Cubin, Al Wynn and many others who have departed Congress.) That is certainly what they do with lobbying expenditures, where they say that “the industry” has spent $3 billion “since 2000,” meaning they are including money spent lobbying such non-members as Barack Obama, Tom Daschle, Fred Thompson, Jim Jeffords, Debra Pryce, Richard Gephardt, etc.

Beyond that fact that these different parts of “the industry” represent many different views, not a monolith, it is also worth noting how much was contributed by those who would clearly favor “reform.” (The report suggests, almost certainly incorrectly, that all the spending and contributions are being used to defeat “reform.”) What about labor union spending? Contributions simply by liberal Democratic donors? Lobbying by Common Cause (which employs lobbyists) and others? In fact, CNN had a report last week showing “supporters of President Obama’s approach to health care reform” are outspending opponents on the air by a margin greater than 2-to-1.

“Pro-Obama interest groups have spent $8.2 million on TV, while groups that oppose his proposal have countered with $3.2 million in commercials,” according to an analysis conducted by Campaign Media Analysis Group.

The report also exposes the supposedly outrageous fact that the health care industry contributes more to lawmakers who are members or leadership on congressional committees with jurisdiction over health care legislation. Why this is “hard-hitting” is one question, but the more important issue is that the report stops at that assertion and then doesn’t address the underlying assumption at the core of their report – that these targeted contributions have adversely affected health care legislation.

Beyond being an affront to any educated reader, one can assume that the omission is a result of the fact that there is no evidence that a contribution has, for example, turned a lawmaker who was previously opposed to a public option into a staunch supporter.

And that purposeful omission is one of the key things wrong with the push for campaign finance restrictions. Self-styled “reformers” are willing to push restrictions on individuals’ First Amendment rights and lawmakers right to association without evidence of cause and effect. This report demonstrates an even more nuanced strategy of the “reform” community – that the bottom line goal is not good government, however one defines that, but rather the desire to silence opponents, in this case the health care industry, so that the policies favored by one group can pass without debate or opposition.

Campaign contributions are not a danger to the legislative process, and it’s irresponsible to stoke unfounded assumptions to pass an agenda when the public policy issue in question is so important. While there may be such a thing as the “public option,” there’s no such thing as the “public interest” when it comes to health care or other complex policy matters. We are a nation of factionalized and diverse interests, and we have lawmakers to represent constituent views and lobbyists to represent specific interests. There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s how our republic operates.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.