Measures of Influence


The signature issue of the Sunlight Foundation is transparency–that the business of government should be conducted in as open a manner as possible. Secret provisions, appropriations inserted in the middle of night by unseen and unknown hands, are antithetical to our system of government. Banana republics operate with no transparency in the dead of night–not the United States.

Or so one would like to think. Yet, as a new report from Public Citizen makes clear, a small clique of powerful members of Congress can, without the knowledge or approval of their fellow elected representatives, insert a provision with broad effects into a bill at the behest of and for the benefit of a narrow special interest (indeed, as the report shows, a provision that was largely designed by that interest).

What strikes me is just how self-defeating such maneuvers ultimately are. The measure–which provides a liability shield for makers of vaccines to pandemic diseases–might have some merit for some extraordinary circumstances. Given a choice between a highly contagious disease which is a certain killer and a vaccine which might have serious side affects (let’s say in 20 percent of cases), I know which way I’d choose, and I wouldn’t necessarily want the potential for trial lawyers to sue the vaccine maker to prevent me from having an imperfect treatment option. But the well-heeled interests in Washington have little interest in good public policy, and lawmakers who do their bidding try to keep their contributors happy below the public’s radar–in secret, if at all possible.

Such was the case with former House Majority Leader Richard Armey’s belated admission that he inserted a provision in the 2002 Homeland Security Act that protected Eli Lilly & Co. from lawsuits related to thimerosal, the preservative added to vaccines that contains some mercury. There may or may not be merits to absolving Lilly (in this case, I’m less inclined to think juries are incapable of determining that), but Armey’s secrecy shows the arrogant power of private interests and powerful lawmakers. When he was leaving the House–when he would no longer face voters–he was happy to take credit for his handiwork, but not a moment before.