An in-depth analysis of Obama's 2008 campaign contributors conducted by iWatch News in 2011 determined that in certain circumstances major bundlers ended up receiving appointments to key White House positions, invitations to White House events, and stimulus money awarded through contracts. This analysis required a high level of investigative journalism skill and a significant amount of time. It would not have been possible, however, without access to a number of data sources.
The iWatch analysis frequently returns to the story of Donald H. Gips, a Colorado businessman and bundler for Obama. His story provides a useful frame for illustrating the data sources that provided essential information for this piece.
Accessing Campaign Finance Data Regarding Bundlers
The article states that Gips bundled over $500,000 for Obama in 2008. Presidential candidates are not required to report their bundlers, but both Obama and McCain chose to do so in 2008. The Center for Responsive Politics makes available the list from 2008 as well as a list of 2012 bundlers for those candidates who have chosen to disclose. While the candidate usually only discloses the name of the bundler, CRP adds value by including additional information such as the total amount contributed, the name of the bundler, the city and state, and employer. The information also contains the total amount the bundler has contributed him or herself to the specified candidate since 1990. Bundlers are additionally broken down by industry. A search for Gips shows that he bundled over $500,000 in 2008 and has individually donated $32,391 since 1990.
After Obama won the election, the article states that Gips was put in charge of hiring in the White House and subsequently appointed as the U.S. ambassador to South Africa. The White House provides a searchable database of nominations and appointments that indicates the name of the nominee, the position and agency, the formal nomination date, and the date and result of the confirmation vote. Gips does not appear in that list, as his position did not require him to be appointed. A press release from Change.gov, Obama's transition website, however, lists Gips among several other staff announcements. The U.S. Department of State provides a list of embassies, which can be used to find information about American consulates around the world, including the name of the current ambassador.
Tracking Stimulus Funds
The article points out that Level 3 Communications LLC, where Gips was formerly vice president, was later the recipient of $13.8 million in stimulus funds. Information regarding the recipients of stimulus funds is available from three places:
Information regarding stimulus funds is available from Recovery.gov. Level 3 EON, a subsidiary of Level 3 Communications, appears as having received $13.7 million in six awards.
You can find information about the stimulus as well as all contracts and grants data on USASpending.gov. A search on this site shows that Level 3 Communications received just under $80,000 in awards from the Department of Defense and the Department of Agriculture.
Our Influence Explorer also provides contract data in a more user-friendly format.
Viewing White House Visitors
The article also discusses bundlers receiving access to the White House, such as invitations to events or meetings. The Obama White House has voluntarily chosen to disclose the security records that detail those who enter the White House. These Visitor Logs have been criticized for a lack of accuracy and completeness, but can be valuable for use in analyses such as the iWatch report. The records show 18 visits by Gips to the White House between August 17, 2009 and April 1, 2011. Among the 18 are two trips to see the president and various trips to other White House staff such as Jenny Cizner, who works in the Office of Presidential Personnel, and Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president.
"The News Without Transparency" shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we've redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you'd like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The much-touted Presidential meeting with CEOs held earlier today was not the first time that President Obama has met with CEOs.
According to White House Visitor Logs, the President has held meetings with CEOs or business leaders at least eleven times prior to today.
These meetings do not include the countless individual meetings the President has held with CEOs, but are simply a collection of CEO Lunches and meetings with groups of CEOs.
As it was not a new thing for the President to meet with CEOs, it was also not a new thing for him to talk to the specific CEOs invited today. At least fourteen of the CEOs are listed as having met with the President or a senior adviser--Valerie Jarrett or Larry Summers--in the Visitor Logs. The others either do not show up in the logs (John Lechleiter, John Doerr) or are difficult to disambiguate (Scott Davis, Brian Roberts).
A report filed jointly by CNN and the Center for Responsive Politics showed that the CEOs collectively contributed $8.2 million to federal political campaigns over the past 20 years. Seventy percent of that went to Democrats.
Here's a database of the CEO meetings that we collected (not including the individual meetings held):
The White House blog recently wrote about Obama's trip to India and mentioned that US-based organizations could learn from Indian organizations using technology to improve accountability and transparency. I agreed. Now is a great time for the US government to recognize that there are transparency policies all over the world that we Americans could implement or, at a bare minimum, learn from. Here are just a few foreign governments that have policies we wish would improve what we have state-side:
You get a dataset! And you get a dataset! Everyone gets a dataset!
Publicly Funded Research Papers Available to the Public
The Congressional Research Service, often referred to as 'Congress' think tank', is a well-respected non-partisan branch of the Library of Congress that regularly publishes reports exclusively for members of Congress and their staff at a budget over $100 million. The Sunlight Foundation and others have long advocated for these reports to be public (meaning online), but they remain inaccessible to the general public.
In Australia the political system requires candidates and Senate groups, registered political parties and their associated entities, and donors and third parties to lodge disclosure returns. Swoon!
It would be impossible to ignore that each country listed in the items above has a unique political system, but these examples serve as great starting points for policies that could work here, now. The Sunlight Foundation will continue to encourage dialogue on these important issues and hope that the US government learns from non-profits and governments all over the world.
I love coffee. A lot. And I understand that people who work extraordinarily long hours, under extraordinarily stressful conditions, probably love coffee more than I do. People, for example, who work at the White House. The manager of the Caribou Coffee across the street from the White House agreed, in a New York Times piece this week: "The caffeine rush -- they need it."
Unfortunately, getting coffee may have also turned into a way to circumvent many of the transparency policies of the administration. After all, lobbyists like coffee too, and there's no sign-in sheet at a coffeeshop.
Several Sunlight staffers went down to Caribou Coffee today to log in any lobbyists that might've been coming to meet with White House staff. We didn't run into any lobbyists, and the only White House staffer we met was going to the Potbelly next door -- it was a little late in the afternoon for a coffee fix. Watch the video below:
It shouldn't matter whether or not a meeting between White House officials and lobbyists happens at the White House or at Caribou Coffee. Releasing visitor logs is a step in the right direction, but it's not sufficient. If a meeting concerns public information, that information should be public: online and available in real time. Sign the pledge and join the campaign: http://PublicEqualsOnline.com.
(Note: this post has been updated since it was first published—see below)
It's Sunshine Week again, and in that spirit I want to share a recent story about open government. Two weeks ago, a government professional from the Republic of Korea looked over at me and, through an interpreter, said he was going to tell me why their political system is better than America's.
It was an interesting moment for me. At the meeting were three additional South Korean professionals, and I listened attentively as their interpreter related the gist of the argument:
Corporations in South Korea are prohibited from spending money on political activity.
Individuals can spend up to $5,000 per year on National Assembly races, and they can only give to four candidates per year.
Any spending above $3,000 must be disclosed.
How did I find myself in this situation? For starters, it wasn't the first time! One of the many pleasant aspects about working at the Sunlight Foundation is the simple act of talking about open government with other interested parties. In this case, it was a delegation of professionals from Korea. The trip was arranged by World Learning, as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program administered by the U.S. State Department. Yesterday's was the fifth such meeting I've participated in since I started at Sunlight—previously, my colleagues and I discussed transparency with a delegation of Dutch officials, an activist/videographer from Australia, a political science professor from Colombia, and officials from Latin America.
I was a little playful in that last paragraph, but the meetings are more than just "pleasant." According to the State Department, almost "300 IVLP alumni are current or former Heads of Government or Chiefs of State." Alumni include British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Last year alone, more than 4,400 people visited the U.S. through the program, and 190,000 have participated since 1940.
Ambassador Kenton Keith is the Senior Vice President of Meridian International Center, one of seven program agencies that facilitate IVLP for the State Department. He told me U.S. embassies around the world select participants: "These people are selected because the embassies regard them as people of either present or near future importance to areas of interest to the United States." They then spend 2-3 weeks in the United States for meetings with counterparts and for general orientation.
"They have a several-day presentation in Washington with government, NGOs and appropriate bodies, and then they go to other cities in the country," Kenton said. "When visitors go out into the country they are hosted by a network of volunteer groups under the umbrella of the National Council of International Visitors. They help them to get appointments with the people they need to see, and to get a feel for the society, the culture and the values of the United States."
Kenton describes IVLP as one of the "most valuable kinds of programs that we operate as a country." He told me participants can be anything from journalists to scientists, teachers, politicians and museum directors. "They obviously become familiar with the United States," he said, "an important country to most anybody in the world, and are often able to seize important networking opportunities with people in the same field and who have the same interests."
Not every meeting I attended was part of the IVLP, but they all have provided an incredible array of benefits for our organization. Most notably, we learn about the ways officials practice open government in different countries. When we met with the delegation from Latin America, for example, we learned that some countries have FOIA laws that are significantly better for citizens. In Mexico, all requests for public documents (think FOIA) are posted online. In other countries, all requested documents are posted online. Here in America, you can use the FOIA process to see what others people have requested (a nice little trick of journalists to avoid getting scooped), but the only person who can see the results is the person who submitted the request in the first place.
Aside from the policy perspectives these meetings can bring to light, they also provide the basis for some incredible best practices discussions and allow participants to forge collaborative partnerships. I met last year with professor Monica Pachon Buitrago of the University of the Andes. She was developing a Web site to track members of the Colombian legislature, something similar to OpenCongress.org. The site, CongresoVisible.org, is now up and running. We can learn from one another, by sharing which site features are most useful to readers or swapping code modules. When an open-government advocate from Australia was in D.C., we discussed some of the challenges he faces in that country: Generating interest among citizens, convincing officials that that a transparent government is good for them, and creating partnerships with other organizations and the media in Australia. Turns out, those are very similar to the challenges we have here in America.
As we prepare to launch our campaign, we're having similar discussions with individuals across the country. Activists, bloggers, and citizens are asking how they can help make their local and state governments more open, accessible and accountable. One of the best ways of figuring that out is to see how others have succeeded.
Which brings us back to the gentlemen from the Republic of Korea. The delegates were genuinely interested in the way members of the U.S. House of Representatives disclose office expenditures, and any impact that disclosure has had on Members or staff. We discussed the White House visitor logs, and Paul's story last month using the logs to examine the PhRMA deal. Finally, I answered some questions about the Citizens United decision: What it means for our movement, what the proposed legislative responses might be, and how we look at campaign finance disclosure in the future.
That led into the exchange I described at the beginning, and a more in-depth dialogue on disclosure. We spoke about the differences between our two systems of government, and I hope they learned as much from me as I learned from them.
From what I understand, that's the whole point.
Author's note: At the request of the U.S. State Department, we've removed the specific titles of the individuals from the Republic of Korea. We were informed, in the course of reporting this piece, that IVLP meetings are supposed to be off-the-record. While this was not conveyed to us until after the meeting took place, we don't want the delegates to experience any repercussions for what was said during the meeting.
Recently and continuously, the White House has been releasing the "White House Visitor Logs," showing America who is coming in to meet with the President and his staff. At the same time, the Center for Responsive Politics releases cleaned up data on lobbyist filings. We thought it'd be interesting to find the intersect between the names in both sets of data.
After the jump, you'll find our results along relevant information from both sets of data. Now-- this is important: just because the names match doesn't mean they're the same person. Because the White House doesn't release any other form of identity information besides the name, we're unable to tell whether or not the name in one dataset actually refers to the same person in the other. John Adams in one dataset may be a different John Adams in another.
Upon assuming the presidency Barack Obama set about creating an office within the White House to spearhead his effort to pass health care reform legislation. The White House Office of Health Reform was to be headed by a long-time health reform player in both the public and private sectors, Nancy-Ann DeParle. According to White House visitor logs, seventeen lobbyists for key interests working on health care reform held eleven meetings with DeParle through 2009.
These lobbyists represented a cross section of interests from those who would ultimately oppose legislation to the outwardly supportive. The majority came from health industry groups that were, if not hostile, trying to protect their interests.
The organization most present in DeParle's schedule is the American Medical Association (AMA). After years of opposing health care reform efforts the AMA backed health reform efforts in 2009 and, in November, stated their support for the House health care reform bill. Representatives from the AMA met with DeParle three times from August to October. The lobbyists present at the meetings were Richard Deem, the senior vice president for advocacy at the AMA, and Richard Tarplin, a lobbyist from Tarplin Strategies.
Both Deem and Tarplin have connections to past health reform efforts. Deem was the AMA's director of federal affairs during the effort by President Bill Clinton to pass comprehensive health care reform. Tarplin was working in the Clinton White House at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) at the time. Tarplin likely worked with DeParle during the Clinton health care effort as DeParle was in charge of health reform issues at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and later worked at HHS.
Other lobbyists appearing on DeParle's schedule include Karen Ignagni, the President and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and another AHIP lobbyist, Gary Bacher. The White House tried for months to bring AHIP to table on health care reform, but ultimately found that they could not reach on agreement to obtain their support for reform. Later reports revealed that AHIP was paying for anti-health care reform advertisements through the US Chamber of Commerce.
DeParle also met with lobbyists from AARP, AFL-CIO, Alliance of Community Health Plans, Business Roundtable, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. The full list of meetings can be viewed below:
More than a million spectators gathered before the Capitol on a frosty January afternoon to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama, who promised in his campaign to change Washington’s mercenary culture of lobbyists, special interest influence and backroom deals. But within a few months of being sworn in, the President and his top aides were sitting down with leaders from the pharmaceutical industry to hash out a deal that they thought would make health care reform possible.
Over the following months, pharmaceutical industry lobbyists and executives met with top White House aides dozens of times to hammer out a deal that would secure industry support for the administration's health care reform agenda in exchange for the White House abandoning key elements of the president's promises to reform the pharmaceutical industry. They flooded Congress with campaign contributions, and hired dozens of former Capitol Hill insiders to push their case. How they did it—pieced together from news accounts, disclosure forms including lobbying reports and Federal Election Commission records, White House visitor logs and the schedule Sen. Max Baucus releases voluntarily—is a testament to how ingrained the grip of special interests remains in Washington.
In the 2008 campaign, Obama declared his intention to include all stakeholders as he sought to reform the nation's health care system, but also supported key Democratic health reform policies. Among these were several that targeted the pharmaceutical industry: Allowing re-importation of drugs from first world countries with lower drug prices and providing Medicare with negotiating authority over prescription drug prices in the recently enacted Part D program. These weren't just promises, Obama had already voted for both of them as a senator in 2007. (Roll Call Vote 132 and Roll Call Vote 150.)
Set to carry out this agenda were two Capitol Hill veterans, schooled in the monied Washington culture, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina. Emanuel was a former fundraiser, Clinton administration official, investment banker and member of the Democratic leadership in Congress. Messina was the former campaign manager and chief of staff to the powerful Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus. Both were known for their unparalleled legislative abilities.
Central to this effort was PhRMA president, CEO and top lobbyist Billy Tauzin, a longtime Democratic member of Congress who switched party affiliations after Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994. By switching parties Tauzin was able to maintain his influence and even rose to be Chairman of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce. Tauzin became the poster child of Washington’s mercenary culture. He crafted a bill to provide prescription drug access to Medicare recipients, one that provided major concessions to the pharmaceutical industry. Medicare would not be able to negotiate for lower prescription drug costs and reimportation of drugs from first world countries would not be allowed. A few months after the bill passed, Tauzin announced that he was retiring from Congress and would be taking a job helming PhRMA for a salary of $2 million.
Tauzin’s job change became fodder for a campaign ad that then presidential candidate Barack Obama ran in the spring of 2008 simply titled “Billy.” It featured the candidate, sleeves rolled up, talking to a salon of gasping Americans about the ways of Washington. “The pharmaceutical industry wrote into the prescription drug plan that Medicare could not negotiate with drug companies. And you know what, the chairman of the committee, who pushed the law through, went to work for the pharmaceutical industry making $2 million a year.” The screen fades to black to inform the viewer that, “Barack Obama is the only candidate who refuses Washington lobbyist money,” while the candidate continues his lecture, “Imagine that. That's an example of the same old game playing in Washington. You know, I don't want to learn how to play the game better, I want to put an end to the game playing.”
Aiding PhRMA in their outreach to Congress would be a squadron of lobbyists to push their health care reform priorities. Over the course of 2009, the drug industry trade group spent over $28 million on in house and hired lobbyists. Aside from PhRMA's massive in-house lobbying operation, the trade group hired 48 outside lobbying firms. The total number of lobbyists working for PhRMA in 2009 reached 165. Some 137 of those 165 lobbyists representing PhRMA were former employees of either the legislative or executive branches. Of these dozens were former congressional staffers including two former chiefs of staff to Max Baucus.
According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, drug makers contributed huge sums to congressional campaign committees during the same period—from January to the end of October (4th quarter numbers are still being totaled), industry political action committees, employees and their family members flooded lawmakers with over $8 million. Those contributions tilted heavily to Democrats over Republicans by a 57 to 42 percent margin—the first time in any election cycle going back to 1990, the first year that the Center for Responsive Politics began tracking industry giving, that Democrats were so favored. Given their majorities on Capitol Hill, and the new President’s intention to reform America’s health care system, the new tilt was perhaps not surprising.
Billy Tauzin, President & CEO of PhRMA and Jeff Kindler, CEO & Chairman of Pfizer, chairman-elect of the Board of PhRMA
April 20, 2009
Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen
Sen. Max Baucus
April 20, 2009
Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen
May 7, 2009
David Brennan, CEO of AstraZeneca, Chairman of Board of Directors of PhRMA
Sen. Max Baucus
May 8, 2009
David Brennan, CEO of AstraZeneca, Chairman of Board of Directors of PhRMA
May 19, 2009
Billy Tauzin, President & CEO of PhRMA and James Hall, PhRMA lobbyist
June 2, 2009
Billy Tauzin, President & CEO of PhRMA; James Hall, PhRMA lobbyist; Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen; Jeff Kindler, CEO & Chairman of Pfizer, chairman-elect of the Board of PhRMA; Miles White, CEO of Abbott Laboratories
June 2, 2009
Billy Tauzin, President & CEO of PhRMA; Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen; Jeff Kindler, CEO & Chairman of Pfizer, chairman-elect of the Board of PhRMA; Miles White, CEO of Abbott Laboratories
Sen. Max Baucus
July 7, 2009
Billy Tauzin, President & CEO of PhRMA; Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen; Jeff Kindler, CEO & Chairman of Pfizer, chairman-elect of the Board of PhRMA; Miles White, CEO of Abbott Laboratories (David Brennan, CEO of AstraZeneca, Chairman of Board of Directors of PhRMA is also listed in visitor logs for an appointment date)
White House (Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina; Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Max Baucus' chief of staff Jon Selib are scheduled to meet at the same time; Independent reports place Emanuel in the meeting)
On March 5, the White House held a meeting with major health care industry leaders to try to bring them to the table and see what could be done to gain their support. In attendance were Billy Tauzin, president, CEO and top lobbyist for PhRMA, Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler, America's Health Care Plans (AHIP) Chairman Karen Ignani, Tom Donohue of the Chamber of Commerce and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations’ Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. A day before the White House meeting Tauzin appeared on CNBC touting health care reform and promising to work closely with the Obama administration. In the interview he touted it as an “optimistic plan”, acknowledging that the industry did have a few problems but was glad to have a chance to discuss these. Some werecaught dumb-founded by this apparent change of heart on behalf of an industry long adverse to health care reforms.
On April 15, Jim Messina and Jon Selib, chief of staff to Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, convened a meeting at the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) with leaders of organized labor and health care groups, including PhRMA. At the meeting, the groups decided to form two nonprofit entities to promote reform efforts, Healthy Economy Now and Americans for Stable Quality Care, that would be almost entirely funded by PhRMA. The two groups spent $24 million on their advertising campaigns; the contract to produce and place ads went to White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod’s former firm, AKPD, which owed Axelrod $2 million.
In the next month, CEO’s from pharmaceutical companies would meet with Baucus and administration officials at least four times. These talks preceded a major public event at the White House, one critical to its strategy to promote health care reform. On May 11, PhRMA and other trade industry groups pledged cost cutting measures to the White House that would save, they claimed, upwards of $2 trillion over the next decade. President Obama announced the deal in the State Dining Room, flanked by leaders of the various trade groups; the administration followed up with a media blitz in the press and on the White House Web site.
The next day, Healthy Economy Now's PhRMA funded ad campaign ran their first advertisement in support of the health care reform process calling for the government to finally “fix” the nation's health care cost problems. While many elements of the $2 trillion cost cutting pledge fell apart, the drug industry remained committed to the process in the hopes that they could ultimately win out and defeat the provisions they most feared in closed-door meetings with the White House.
The first occurred on June 2. White House visitor logs show PhRMA’s top executives, including Tauzin, and industry CEOs met with Sarah Fenn from the White House Office of Health Care Reform. On the same day, the publicly available schedule of Senator Max Baucus shows Tauzin and the same industry CEOs met the Senate Finance Committee chairman. What ultimately resulted from these coordinated meetings would be revealed by Baucus on June 20.
In a press release featuring a statement by Tauzin, Baucus revealed that the pharmaceutical industry had accepted $80 billion in cost cutting measures to be included in the Senate Finance Committee version of the bill. According to news reports, Baucus initially proposed $100 billion in cost cutting measures, but the executives and lobbyists meeting on June 2 were able to win the lower figure.
The terms of the initial cost-cutting deal included $30 billion go directly towards closing the “donut hole” in Medicare prescription drug coverage. The “donut hole” is a term for the gap in coverage that occurs within the Medicare prescription drug coverage. For those purchasing prescription drugs through the Medicare program coverage cuts off at $2,700 spent and does not pick back up again until $6,154 is spent by the participant. The amount proposed in the deal, 50 percent coverage for drugs within the coverage gap, however, would not completely close the “donut hole.”
In Baucus' press release, Tauzin is quoted as saying, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, working together, we can make this hope for a better tomorrow a reality today.” This “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity also extended to the pharmaceutical industry's ability to blunt the long-term Democratic agenda of lowering prescription drug prices through Medicare negotiations, re-importation and quicker release of generics onto the market. After making such a grand statement of support through cost cutting proposals it was time for the pharmaceutical industry to finally force the White House and Democrats to take certain chips off the table.
Baucus proceeded with a plan to convene a bipartisan group in an effort to craft the bill desired by the White House. These participants included Democrats Kent Conrad and Jeff Bingaman and Republicans Chuck Grassley, Mike Enzi and Olympia Snowe. Baucus' decision and the need to solidify deals with groups like the pharmaceutical industry – which were reliant on Baucus producing a bill – slowed down the legislative process making it impossible for Congress to meet the White House's announced August recess deadline for passing health care reform.
Soon after, PhRMA’s big guns and industry lobbyists paid the White House another visit on July 7 and this time met with Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina (Baucus' chief of staff Jon Selib is also listed in White House visitor logs for this meeting). In August, The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim reported on an internal memo that was drafted at that meeting that outlined the policies that would not be allowed into any final version of health care reform. These included Medicare prescription drug negotiations, drug re-importation, and the lowering of prices for drugs available through Medicare Part D and Part B. The deal would be $80 billion in cost cutting and absolutely no more.
While the $80 billion deal was cut with Baucus' committee, other congressional committees continued to mark-up their own versions of health care reform without the knowledge that the White House was relying on Baucus to produce the final product. In the House of Representatives, the House Energy & Commerce Committee leveled a direct threat to the $80 billion deal. Energy & Commerce Chair Henry Waxman sought to include all of the provisions that PhRMA had gotten the White House and Baucus to cut out of the reform bill. These included drug reimportation, Medicare negotiating power and speedier release of generics to the market. According to previous analysis of the measures proposed by the committee, these measures would have totaled hundreds of billions in cost cuts, far exceeding the $80 billion cap agreed to by the White House, Baucus and PhRMA.
The cost cutting measures passed in the Energy & Commerce bill spooked the board of PhRMA, which included all of the CEOs involved in the deal-cutting meetings with the White House and Baucus. The board pressured Tauzin to go public with the deal to ensure that the White House would recognize it and not renege. On August 4, the Los Angeles Times, in an exclusive report, featured quotes from Tauzin claiming that a deal between the White House and PhRMA existed and that, as Tauzin put it, “The White House blessed it.” Tom Hamburger wrote in the article, “For his part, Tauzin said he had not only received the White House pledge to forswear Medicare drug price bargaining, but also a separate promise not to pursue another proposal Obama supported during the campaign: importing cheaper drugs from Canada or Europe.”
The White House's Jim Messina later confirmed Tauzin's claim, stating, “The president encouraged this approach … He wanted to bring all the parties to the table to discuss health insurance reform.”
Democratic lawmakers were furious. Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the Progressive Caucus, asked, “Are industry groups going to be the ones at the table who get the first big piece of the pie and we just fight over the crust?”
On September 7, Baucus' bill made a private circulation on the Hill; pharmaceutical industry cost-cutting did not exceed $80 billion. Five days later, the New York Times reported that PhRMA planned to spend up to $150 million in an advertising blitz in support of Baucus' bill. The Times noted that the ad spending “…would be a follow-up to the deal that drug makers struck in June with Mr. Baucus and the White House.” On September 16, Baucus released the full text of his legislation to the public.
The White House, PhRMA and Baucus still had to fight a few battles to keep the deal intact. The key amendment targeting the PhRMA deal in committee mark-up came from Sen. Bill Nelson from Florida, which has one of the largest Medicare participant populations in the nation. The pull of constituent needs clearly put Bill Nelson into a position to push for further cost cutting in Medicare prescription drug pricing. His target: closing the “donut hole” completely.
Nelson claimed that his amendment would generate $106 billion in revenue, or from PhRMA's perspective increase their cost-cutting to $186 billion. That would be unacceptable to PhRMA, to Baucus, to the White House and to the pharmaceutical industry who had made the deal. Other Senate Democrats, Tom Carper and Robert Menendez voted with Republicans and Baucus on the committee to defeat the amendment. It is little surprise the Carper's Delaware is home to AstraZeneca and Menendez' New Jersey is home to Merck and Bristol-Myers-Squibb, all of which lobbied for the $80 billion cap.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the final bill, with the cap in place, on November 19. Debate began on Dec. 3, and with it come one more attempt by members to change the terms of the deal. Senator Byron Dorgan introduced an amendment that would allow for drug re-importation, but as the date for voting drew near, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) released a letter objecting to the proposal that echoed pharmaceutical industry talking points: “…as currently written, the resulting structure would be logistically challenging to implement and resource intensive. In addition, there are significant safety concerns.” Dorgan's amendment was defeated with numerous Democrats previously in support of reimportation switching to "no" votes.
On Christmas Eve, the bill passed the Senate with the PhRMA deal fully intact.
New Year's Eve passed with no further action on health care reform. Public opinion regarding the health care reform bill had been slipping throughout 2009. It reached a fulcrum in the special election to replace the deceased senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts on January 19, 2010. Newly minted senator Scott Brown campaigned that he would be the senator to provide Republicans with the votes to filibuster the final health care reform bill. Democrats ran for cover. Despite having the largest majorities of any party since the 1970s, Democrats put the brakes on their agenda, particularly health care reform.
In the end, the pharmaceutical industry's support for health care reform would be left up in the air. After spending $100 million in advertising in support of legislation that Tauzin and key executives hoped would be a windfall for the pharmaceutical industry, the legislative process had flat-lined. In February, the board of PhRMA, split over the deal cut by Tauzin, pushed Tauzin to resign his post.
In an interview with Diane Sawyer, President Obama owed up to failures in the process of passing health care reform, “[T]he health care debate as it unfolded legitimately raised concerns not just among my opponents, but also amongst supporters that we just don't know what's going on … And it's an ugly process and it looks like there are a bunch of back room deals.”
With notable exceptions, such as the White House visitor logs being released, the efforts we have seen towards openness are still almost entirely intentions, plans, and initiative rather than outcomes that have tangibly resulted in more actual transparency.
Early this morning, the White House took a huge step toward a more transparent government by announcing a historic new policy to voluntarily disclose White House visitor access records. Each month, records of visitors from the previous 90-120 days will be made available online.
From the President's statement:
For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis. We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent administration in history not only by opening the doors of the White House to more Americans, but by shining a light on the business conducted inside it. Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.
Aside from a small group of appointments that cannot be disclosed because of national security imperatives or their necessarily confidential nature (such as a visit by a possible Supreme Court nominee), the record of every visitor who comes to the White House for an appointment, a tour, or to conduct business will be released. Read the full policy here.
The Administration has also agreed with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) to settle four pending cases requesting specific White House visitor access records, including those dating from the Bush administration (read the transmittal letter here). We have provided CREW with the records relating to their requests....
You can read all the details of this new policy at Norm Eisen's blog.
There are a couple of important things to note. First, I understand that the president was personally involved in pushing this new policy forward and that generally around the White House there was not a lot of sympathy for this dramatic change. This is very significant and illustrates a fundamental commitment by this president to the campaign pledges he made toward openness of government.
Second, the White House has given itself wiggle room in that they will exercise discretion in deleting the names of certain visitors -- personal friends, national security related meetings, and for some other reasons. We are going to trust them to make the right decisions. (We don't need to know, don't want to know the name of Sascha and Malia's friends as one example.) One misstep and the good will we are offering them right now goes out the window.
Third, there is a substantial delay in making this information available to the public, 90-120 days. This latter point does give me some considerable pause. I understand that it will take at least 60 days for the Secret Service records to make their way to the White House and then some time to clean the data of personal information like social security numbers and phone numbers, but I would also bet it would be pretty darn easy to design a system that could provide that information on a daily basis. (Why shouldn't the White House have access to the back end database that the Secret Service uses on a daily basis?) Hopefully, the White House will look into technological fixes for what they now assume will be a manual review and cleansing of the records. Real time, online is the standard to which we should hold all government information. That's what "public" information means in the 21st century.
That critique aside, this is indeed a historic step. This kind of disclosure pioneered by the White House can keep government strong, keep citizens informed, provide an opportunity for all of us to monitor at close hand the work of the White House, providing an insurance policy for our citizens against those who want to keep them in the dark.