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Oct 07th
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Why Special Interests Trump the Public Good

tom_honig_sIt recently became clear to me that the wrong people are in charge of health-care reform. Who you need are people who aren’t worried about re-election and who don’t give a whit about special interests.

Don’t worry: this isn’t one of those angry-man screeds that are popping up around the country. It’s too easy to look around, see what isn’t working and then do a fist pump thing where you yell: “Throw the bums out.”

Because that hasn’t worked either. Take a look at California, where term limits have helped make an ungovernable state even worse.

It’s easy to blame the politicians, especially as a group. Instead, look at their motivations. Basically, like the rest of us, they want to hold on to their jobs. And even when they retire, they want their jobs to go to a colleague – and not the opposition.

Special interests? They’re the ones who help the politicians keep their jobs. Even the most pure-of-heart politician knows that she needs money and needs more money after that.

One of the oldest head-scratchers in elected politics is the overall unpopularity of most elected bodies – Congress, the California Legislature – and the habit of voters to return nearly every incumbent back to office every two or four or six years. We like our incumbents – and, by the way, so do special interests. They invest a lot of money into their success.

With a big campaign coffer, an incumbent can do what he does best: he can be likable. He can show up at public meetings and press the flesh. They tell us stories about the good they’ve done – and the bad things that the opposition wants to do.

That’s why we like our elected representative even though we might hate Congress as a whole. Multiply that by 435 and you see the problem.

So to get elected, you need to be likable and then brand the opposition as evil. That’s what we, as voters, respond to. And then we wonder why there’s no bipartisanship.

What’s needed on health care—or on running the state in California—is at least some dedication to finding good solutions and not political ones. Congress failed at that. Look at what it came up with: Different costs for union members and non-union members. Different costs for Nebraskans and non-Nebraskans. Guaranteed business for health-insurance companies (yes, the same companies that advocates had vowed to oppose).

This isn’t a health-care problem per se. It’s a problem that affects every aspect of our public decisions. President Obama pointed it out right after the Republicans’ surprise victory in Massachusetts. The voter is frustrated, he said, and the voter is angry. He even acknowledged that that anger helped put him into office.

What, exactly, are we mad at? Perhaps it’s because we know that elected officials—at least, many of them—respond more to special interests than they do to individual constituents. They need the campaign dollars. It might surprise some that the same Wall Street bankers who are being trashed in the public debate at the same time are being wooed by the office-holders—yes, Democrats as well as Republicans. Same with the health-care companies. Same with labor unions. And interests of these groups trump the interests of you and me. Just try getting a face-to-face personal meeting with an elected representative. It’s much easier to do that if you’re a key member of a big-bucks donor organization.

These are the reasons why having Congress in charge of something like health-care reform is so frustrating. The goals of elected officials are not the goals of the public. They want to be re-elected. They want credit for the success of legislation, but in order to get bills passed they have to be sensitive to the needs of those whose money will help them in being re-elected.

California has proved that throwing the bums out actually makes the problem even worse. As new members come shuffling through the Legislature, they have less and less in common—other than trying to figure out what job they can get after their terms expire. At least in the old days, experienced politicians knew how to get along with colleagues and with those across the aisle.

It’s easy to lay out the problem. Knowing what to do about it is a bigger challenge. As a start, voters ought to realize that the public good too often takes a back seat to the ambition of getting re-elected. That means that we need to be skeptical even of those we support.

Contact Tom Honig at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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