Monday, January 11, 2010

Ghost of Promises Past

Open letter to President Obama.  You promised change. You promised a powerful new transparency to return government to the people by keeping it open and honest.  You promised something far better than the old Bush-Cheney-behind-the-scenes style of wheeling and dealing.  You're breaking your promises.  It's not too late to turn it around.

Mr. President, I implore you.  Back up.  Turn around.  Remember the politics of the people, that wave of people you motivated brilliantly to carry you into the White House.  It's not too late.  Please let me show you the error of your ways, by focusing on just one mistake you've made - a mistake that will impact the well-being of the American people, undermines our trust in your governance, and set a terrible precedent for future dealings. 

Think of me as the Ghost of Promises Past.  I ask you, how different might America, your ratings, and the health care bill be right now if you hadn't set expectations for all the wheeler-dealers in D.C. by cutting an early backroom deal with Big Pharma?  (Anyone not familiar with this deal, a must read: 

Yes, plenty of other deals have since been cut to get this bill through, and the Big Pharma deal was cut almost so long ago (June 2009), you might wonder why I am whining about it now, Mr. President. But in my mind, this deal is the axis around which the rest of the bill was negotiated, and the first place you blatantly undermined your own popularity with your once-loyal supporters.  Like Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Past, I hope I can help you see the error of your ways while there is yet time in your administration to turn things around.

In a nutshell, Mr. President, you brokered a bad deal in secret for dubious reasons - completely the opposite of your promises to the American public - and then tried to sell us the deal.  You tried to make us think the deal was good for us by saying it will save us $80 billion dollars.  That was engaging in serious spin.  Spin, Mr. President, is the opposite of what we expect from you.  Spin is the kind of thing you promised to get rid of.  Let the Ghost of Promises Past take you back in time.  Do you remember saying this?

Wasn't that campaign ad specifically aimed at Mr. Billy Tauzin, Big Pharma's chief lobbyist?  And isn't he the epitome of "business-as-usual" you promised to change?  How do you think it looks that your first deal was cut with a guy who stepped right from the chairmanship of the House committee that regulates the pharmeceutical industry into the drug industry's top lobbying job?   Wow, chickens guarding the hen house again.

And what did you end up getting for us from Mr. Tauzin?  It turns out that what's in it for us is nothing more than a cap on the rate at which drug companies will raise future prices.  We're not actually reducing $80 billion off the current exhorbitant pricing.  We're avoiding $80 billion in additional future costs.   And by the way, that's $80 billion out of a total of $3.6 trillian, or a mere 2 percent future discount on inflation.  You call a 2 percent reduction in future profits "on-board with health care reform," Mr. President?   As I've reported here in the past, the U.S. is already paying enormously higher prices for pharmaceuticals than most of the other countries in the world.  In  otherwords, your deal locks in the current prescription drug pricing structure, and simply slows down the rate at which those prices will rise in the future!  In fact, according to Sam Stein,, quoting Huffington Post, "IMS Health, a company that supplies the pharmaceutical companies with sales data, predicts that new health reform legislation -- combined with a projected upswing in the economy -- will result in a net gain of more than $137 billion in total market sales over the next four years." 

Wow.  I guess we should all be buying stock in pharmaceuticals.

And in exchange for creating guaranteed profits for Big Pharma, you agreed to oppose any legislation to give Americans an option of buying our pharmaceuticals legally and less-expensively in Canada, and you gave up our ability to use federal buying power to leverage down the cost of drugs for Medicare patients.

Clearly, Mr. President, the bargain doesn't make any sense from a pure consideration standpoint.  We gave up the ability to negotiate what might have amounted to thirty percent or more real decrease in drug costs in exchange for an approximate two percent savings on future price increases.  I'm guessing  - no, I know because Mr. Tauzin said straight out - speaking straight, by the way, is something I expected from you, not them - that the real consideration for selling our leverage down the river was to get the pharmeceutical industry to stand quietly in the back of the room while the rest of the health care game was being played:

“We were assured: ‘We need somebody to come in first. If you come in first, you will have a rock-solid deal."

Again, Mr. President, I suggest that this deal was the precedent-setting move that undermined your ability to push anything through without giving away the store. And too, this deal didn't have to happen, had you simply been brave enough to force your own ideas into the negotiation mix - making good on your promise of transparency could have protected us all from this, and the shameful deals you cut that left us with no serious public option, limits abortion coverage for insureds, forces everyone to purchase health insurance or face fines (another windfall for industry), fails to cover illegals (a foolhardy and costly decision I've covered here) and more - and of course add to that all the individual pork you had to grant to your 60 Democrats to get the bill passed, Doesn't it bother you that you had to twist the arms of your own troups? You've set a bad precedent, Mr. President. I'm sorry.  Consider this a lesson. It was not a smart move.

Of course, you're not alone in this, Mr. President.  But the people who are guiding you are not setting a good example for you.  They are shameless.  In the end, the bill earned the title "Cash for Cloture" bill.  At one point when the criticism was flowing most heavily, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that any Congress person who failed to extract his or her pound of flesh wasn't doing their job. What?!? Specifically,Mr. Reid said this:

"I don't know if there's a senator that doesn't have something in this bill that was important to them, and if they don't have something in it important to them, then it doesn't speak well of them."

Mr. President, once again, let the Ghost of Promises Past remind you of your own words:

I suppose there is some consolation, Mr. President, that the price of a vote seemed to at least be related tangentially to the medical care industry.  There were $100,000 benefits to Louisiana and Nebraska in the form of extra Medicaid money (Nebraska also carved out special lower insurance rates for its residents), a $100 million set-aside for building a medical center in Connecticut, a preservation for Florida Medicare recipients of perks slated to be cut everywhere else in the country, a special Medicare break for workers exposed to asbestos, but only if you've been exposed to asbestos in Libby, Montana, and more.  Read the entire list here: Do you remember, Mr. President, your promise to shame -  not indulge - elected officials with their hands in the cookie jar? Your looking the other way on all these pork specials is tantamount to saying the end justifies the means. It's hard to respect that. 

Mr. President, there may have been no need to rationalize, had you simply kept your promise to keep us, the people, involved.  To make us your secret weapon in motivating elected officials everywhere to do the right thing.  Starting with your promise to air all the real negotiatons on C-Span, in the light of day.  Please don't think you can now pass off town hall vent sessions as publicly aired negotiations.  We know the difference between a town hall meeting and actual deal negotiations.  Check this out, Mr. President.  This is you, making us a promise:

Now, check this out, Mr. President.  This is you, weaseling.  You don't sound gallant, dynamic, charming or convincing.  It is painful to watch.

I know this has been a tough night of revisiting your own past. To sum this up for tonight, I believe, Mr. President, that you've lost sight of the horse you rode in on - a populace wave of American voters whom you roused into believing might join with you to make democracy meaningful once again.  Damn, were we excited.

Mr. President, I believe there is still a chance that you could make amends with this bunch, climb back on the horse, and save our dream before it is too late.

Paul Hogarth, in the L.A. Progressive, remembers this:

"Barack Obama always said “change” would only come if we demand it. His campaign was inspiring because he said it was more than about himself. Like FDR told activists in 1933 to “make me do it,” Obama would keep his volunteers engaged after the election – and would mobilize the base to help him, and make him pass a successful progressive agenda."

Simply carry out your own great ideas, Mr. Obama.  Don't you want to turn those popularity numbers back around?  Think of what you might achieve if you put the same people who orchestrated your grass roots ride into the White House in charge of orchestrating your transparency efforts.  Turn around and make future negotiations public on C-Span, so that legislators would be "shamed" (your own words!) into behaving in ways that demonstrated that they care about America, not just their personal cache of voters? 

And frankly, Mr. President, while health care is critical, that deal is cut and more or less dried.  But restoring the nation's confidence in government is more important than ever.  Starting with restoring our confidence in you.  Let's turn this government back into an institution by and for The People.  Together.  Just the way you promised.

Some people will call me naive for thinking it possible, especially after the health care bill.  But why not?

I am praying, Mr. Obama, that you don't brush off your falling popularity numbers. That you don't let the gains that you did achieve on the health care bill blind you to what went wrong there, to the broken promises of transparency, to the half-ass deals cut with the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, and to the total losses like the abortion restriction piece. 

I am praying that you remember where you came from, step back and rethink.  I am praying that you publicly and humbly announce that this didn't go down as planned, but that you learned a whole bunch and are going to regroup and reconstitute the troups.  While there's still time to achieve the most important goal of all -retrieving the system from the special interests and returning it to its rightful beneficiaries - The People. 

There's still time for you, Mr. President, to keep your promises.  It's not too late.

Sandy Price