Glenn Beck has captured national attention with his caustic poison. The aging right-wing troubadours — Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly—still rouse the wingnuts and enforce discipline among Republican legislators. They’ve peddled the fantasies about ACORN and the all-powerful poverty lobby, and launched a search-and-destroy hunt for targets of opportunity in the Obama administration. Progressives have sensibly organized to question Beck’s advertisers, and even the president has called him out.
But it is worth remembering—Glenn Beck is not blocking the passage of a good health care bill. The old and new carny acts of the right aren’t undermining the energy legislation or frustrating financial reform. To focus on who and what is standing in the way, follow the money.
On health care, the lockstep opposition of Republicans in Congress is deplorable, but Republicans don’t have the votes to block progress. The president is forced to negotiate with Democrats who have 60 votes in the Senate and a large majority in the House and could pass a good bill tomorrow if they unified.
The angry teabag activists shouting slogans in town meetings in August provided drama, but the true opposition is writing checks, not waiving signs. They are wearing pinstripes, not jeans and T-shirts. They represent wealthy insurance company CEOs, not angry workers or small business owners.
In the Pocket
Conservative Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have received nearly $4.7 million in campaign contributions in the 2005-2010 campaign cycle from insurance, pharmaceutical and medical companies leading the charge against health care reform. Here’s the breakdown.
Max Baucus: $1,933,879
- Insurance, $558,075
- Pharmaceuticals, $507,313
- Health Professionals, $504,641
- Health Services/HMOs, $363,850
Kent Conrad: $742,873
- Heath Professionals, $239,533
- Insurance, $233,625
- Pharmaceuticals, $157,700
- Health Services/HMOs, $112,015
Ben Nelson: $844,655
- Insurance, $441,586
- Health Professionals, $225,776
- Pharmaceuticals, $177,293
Blanche Lincoln: $669,904
- Health Professionals, $298,700
- Pharmaceuticals, $153,304
- Insurance, $131,850
- Health Services/HMOs, $86,050
Thomas R. Carper: $469,016
- Insurance, $238,680
- Pharmaceuticals, $139,520
- Health Professionals, $90,816
The Washington media likes to paint the divisions as ideological. Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats are said to be opposed to “big government,” cautious about spending, more concerned about deficits, reflecting more conservative districts and voters. Sure, there are ideological differences between the parties. And legislators do cater to the major interests in their districts. And no doubt, the Democratic Party is a big tent, with a broad range of political opinion.
But the president didn’t cut a deal with Big Pharma to sustain the ban that prohibits Medicare from negotiating lower prices on drugs because of ideology or a policy debate. He did it to neutralize one of the powerful lobbies standing in the way of reform. The deals with utilities and coal companies in the energy bill aren’t about ideology; they are about special interests and political clout. Republicans don’t mind government spending when pouring hundreds of millions into subsidizing insurance companies to compete with Medicare. Blue Dogs aren’t worried about costs when they oppose a public option that would help keep insurance companies honest.
The reborn McCarthy-like conspiratorial fantasies of Glenn Beck should not go unanswered. His effort to discredit the administration by searching for appointees to target should be resisted and scorned.
But everyone should be clear. The president has called on the Congress to act on fundamental reforms that cannot be avoided. Our broken health care system is unaffordable and must be fixed. Moving to new energy is a national security, economic and environmental imperative, not a choice. Fundamental financial reform is necessary if we are to avoid a worse crisis in the near future.
Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and the Republicans in Congress oppose these reforms. They want, as Limbaugh proclaimed, the president to fail. But they aren’t the major roadblocks to the change we need. What stands in the way is the organized power of the entrenched lobbies that have a direct stake in limiting change, and are willing to spend hundreds of millions to obstruct it. Their legions are less angry citizens, than sophisticated lobbyists, increasingly Democrats, many of them retired legislators. They deliver campaign contributions, not votes. They threaten negative campaign ads, not authentic citizen uprisings.
With literally billions at stake, progressives will never be able to match the money of the industries fighting off change. Our only chance is to make their money toxic—to expose the contributions, the lobbyists, the inside deals—and to make legislators understand the president was right when he said we can’t let the permanent lobbies define what is possible in the nation’s capital.
The struggle over health care reform is now reaching its climax. The backroom struggle over energy and financial reform is already fierce. It is time for Democrats to unite to get these done. It is time for the two or three Senate Republicans with any iota of independence to put country over party and be part of the solution. But most of all, it is time for us to follow the money, to track the contributions, expose the lobbyists,and challenge the legislators in both parties who hope to benefit by serving special interests rather than representing their constituents.
Check out opensecrets.org, where the Center for Responsive Politics tracks contributions. Take a look at their study with the Sunlight Foundation on the lobbyists undermining health care reform. Get angry, not cynical. Let your legislators hear from you—and join with your neighbors to demand that they represent you and not the interests that are writing campaign checks.
The president has called on the Congress to deal with fundamental national challenges that can not be ignored (although his predecessors were happy to do so). We’ll not have a better chance to get vital reforms done. But to succeed, legislators in both parties will have to learn that voters aren’t going to put up with the cozy Beltway business as usual.