WASHINGTON — The Congressional debates about energy and Medicare illustrate how far the institutions of the pork barrel and the lobbyist have come.
The pork barrel is no longer simply a favor like a post office in a congressman's home district. Today it can involve huge monetary favors to political supporters. The lobbyist, once someone who patrolled the lobbies to buttonhole legislators, has graduated to big K Street firms, deploying campaign money along with arguments.
The influence-wielder now plays in the big leagues. The energy bill, blocked for the moment by a Senate filibuster, would provide nearly $24 billion over 10 years in tax breaks for oil, gas, and other energy producers. Many of the beneficiaries of government largess are also big contributors to political campaigns. The Washington Post calculates that more than three dozen major Bush contributors stand to gain from the energy bill.
Big lobbies also had spectacular success in the drafting of the Medicare bill, which has burgeoned from the original idea of helping the elderly pay for prescription drugs into a sweeping overhaul of the program. Built into the 681-page bill is $125 billion over 10 years in subsidies for the health industry and related businesses.
The largest item is $86 billion to subsidize the benefits that employers already provide to their workers. There are benefits for doctors, for hospitals, for managed health organizations. The winners of these goodies were the American Medical Association and the lobbies for the pharmaceutical industry, for business, and for HMOs and hospitals.
Where, in this high-powered mix of healthcare providers, was the lobby for the consumers? That should have been the 35-million member AARP. But the AARP had other fish to fry. No longer confined to being an advocate for the elderly, the AARP is itself in the insurance business. It endorsed the now-passed administration bill, to the dismay of many of its members.
All of this reminds me of the book my late friend Philip Stern wrote 15 years ago. It was titled "The Best Congress Money Can Buy." Today, he might write a sequel, "The Best White House Money Can Buy."
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.