Monday, June 25, 2007

Sicko Part 3: Follow the Money

Among the more powerful scenes in Sicko is Moore's literal placement of price tags on the heads of Senators and Representatives (of both parties) reflecting how much money their campaigns have received from pharmaceutical companies, HMOs and other health care industry interests. Yet---spoiler alert!---the final scene shows Moore traipsing over to Congress to see whether he can get some action. Okay, technically he goes to ask them to do his laundry, but the viewer understands that this is really a call for the people to rise up to demand a fundamental change in our health care system.

The underlying culprit, however, as Moore seems to realize, is our system of campaign finance. So long as well-heeled interests can legally "buy" support for their positions in Congress, little is likely to change. And today's Supreme Court decision in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life indicates that things will get worse before they get better. The ruling says that the First Amendment bars the regulation of so-called "issue ads" by corporations and unions, unless "the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate." That means that candidates who favor health care reform that the pharmaceutical and insurance companies oppose can expect to see hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars worth of ads attacking them, with some boilerplate like "Call Congressman Smith and tell him to stop harming our seniors" thrown in to avoid FEC scrutiny. (Rick Pildes has a nice explanation of the case's significance here.) Because this is a constitutional ruling, there's nothing Congress can do about it, even if it wants to. We just have to wait for personnel change on the Supreme Court.

So maybe Michael Moore should have asked Chief Justice Roberts to do his laundry.

11 comments:

KipEsquire said...

It is only when government "does something" that people rent-seek (i.e., throw money at it). The less that politicians do, the less inclined people will be to try to buy them.

So when Moore suggests that government becoming omnipresent in healthcare is the solution to getting money out of healthcare politics, he is being rather the moron.

Tam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tam said...

Kip,

In just considering regulations like that which require the Surgeon General's Warning on cigarette packs, environmental standards, employment health and safety standards, etc., it seems that powerful interest groups in these cases probably threw a lot of money at Congress precisely to encourage inaction. So in my opinion, it seems that the premise from your first paragraph must be wrong, unless I've misunderstood what you are saying.

More generally, I think the implicit "omission/commission" distinction you draw is somewhat meaningless in this context. It is impossible for Congress not to take a position on any issue, even if it doesn't act. Whether or not it acts - and regardless of what acts it takes - one course of action (or inaction) will always favor some group over some other group. So I find it incoherent to say generally that Congress is more immune from influence by interest groups either through action or inaction, in the abstract. Rather, it seems like this is something where you have to consider the specifics of the proposals on a case-by-case basis.

Tam said...

Addendum: my first paragraph above doesn't quite address what you are saying. After all, you weren't saying that interest groups don't try to persuade politicians to refrain from acting. You seem to be saying that the less politicians do, the less susceptible to influence they will be.

Still, I don't see why this is, for the reason stated in the second paragraph.

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