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“A Partisan Axe To Grind”: An ‘Unfortunate Political Stunt’ Goes Awry

Earlier this year, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) thought he’d come up with a great idea: he’d file a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act in the hopes of making coverage more expensive for Capitol Hill staff. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Johnson’s home state of Wisconsin, conceded the senator’s lawsuit was “frivolous” and an “unfortunate political stunt.”

Yesterday, in a development that was arguably even more important than it appears at first blush, a federal judge threw out the case.

A federal judge based in Green Bay has tossed a Sen. Ron Johnson’s Obamacare lawsuit targeting the health benefits for members of Congress and their staff.

The court dismissed the lawsuit, which contended the Obama administrations decision to grant employer contributions for health plans purchased through the District of Columbia’s Obamacare health exchange ran afoul of the law.

Chief Judge William C. Griesbach of the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled that Johnson and fellow plaintiff Brooke Ericson lacked standing, siding with the argument made by the government’s lawyers.

The hurdle for Johnson’s lawyers was always going to be difficult to clear: how would the Republican senator demonstrate he’d been harmed by the health care policy he doesn’t like? Remember, when filing a lawsuit challenging the legality of a law, plaintiffs can’t just say, “I don’t like it.” They need to show how they’ve been adversely affected by it.

Johnson couldn’t, so his case was dismissed. But this is more than just a setback for one Republican senator with a partisan axe to grind; this is also likely the start of things to come for the GOP’s anti-Obama litigation.

Let’s not forget that in April, Johnson not only had high hopes for his case, he also had the enthusiastic support of his Republican colleagues. As we talked about at the time, 38 GOP senators signed onto a legal brief, urging the courts to rule in Johnson’s favor.

As these lawmakers saw it, they were fighting for the preservation of the republic. “The unlawful executive action at issue in this case is not an isolated incident,” the brief said. “Rather, it is part of an ongoing campaign by the executive branch to rewrite the Affordable Care Act on a wholesale basis.”

The courts must side with Johnson, the GOP lawmakers’ brief added, because the administration’s campaign “threatens to subvert the most basic precept of our system of government.”

It was, to be sure, a dumb and overdramatic argument. But more important, it also failed miserably – a federal judge ruled late yesterday that without standing to argue the case, far-right lawmakers will have to pursue their preservation of the republic in some other way.

One wonders if House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took note of the developments.

As for the underlying policy issue, a little background is probably in order. Johnson argued that Democrats came up with a congressional subsidy in the ACA “once members realized how harmful Obamacare actually was.” That was brazenly false.

In reality, the law includes a provision that says members of Congress and their staffs have to sign up for coverage through an exchange. This became tricky because the exchange marketplaces were designed primarily for the uninsured, but Republicans said they wanted this in the law, so it’s in there.

But the story got a little more complicated when the Office of Personnel Management had to decide whether lawmakers and their staffs should also receive the same employer subsidy as everyone else, or whether everyone on Capitol Hill should face higher costs just because they work on Capitol Hill. OPM, with the blessing of the House Republican leadership, said lawmakers and aides can keep the same employer subsidy and play by the same rules as everyone else.

And that’s why Johnson sued – he wanted Capitol Hill employees to pay more for health care because it would make the right feel better. As of yesterday, the argument is a bust.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, July 22, 2014

July 23, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Congress, Ron Johnson | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Taking A Trip To Boehnerland”: John Boehner Takes His Relationship With DC’s Lobbying Industry Quite Seriously

When we think about the sphere of influence for the Speaker of the House, we would ordinarily think first of the House majority caucus. After all, that would make sense — John Boehner should have power on the Hill, where he leads over 200 federal lawmakers who chose to put a gavel in his hands and put behind only the Vice President in the presidential line of succession.

But in practice, Boehner’s sphere of influence is fairly limited in the chamber he ostensibly leads. His operation is far more impressive about a mile and a half away from the Capitol, in the city’s lobbying corridor.

A top aide to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is leaving his post to run the Washington office of American Express, becoming the third-high ranking staffer to depart the office in recent months.

Brett Loper, one of Boehner’s key conduits to the White House during the doomed “fiscal cliff” negotiations of 2012, is returning to K Street after a brief stint in the Speaker’s office where he most recently served as deputy chief of staff.

The Speaker’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, left in Feburary to work at two separate firms — Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a lobby shop, and Lindsey Group, an economic advisory firm. Earlier in February, Boehner’s health adviser, Emily Porter, left to become a vice president at the lobbying firm Nickles Group.

As these departures mount, it’s only natural to wonder if the Speaker’s career is in in decline, and there are rumors that Boehner, frustrated by his complete inability to govern, may retire in the near future. The resignations will only further fuel the speculation.

But there is another explanation — there’s long been a revolving door in Boehner’s office, with aides (a) leaving his staff to become lobbyists; (b) leaving lobbying to join his staff; or (c) occasionally making more than one trip in each direction.

Indeed, in a statement thanking Loper for his service, the Speaker said the staffer will be missed throughout Boehnerland, our Conference, and the entire House.”

This may sound like an odd choice of words, but for a significant group of people, “Boehnerland” is an actual thing.

Long-time readers may recall that this has been an ongoing area of interest for me, dating back to 2010 when I first learned what “Boehnerland” is.

He maintains especially tight ties with a circle of lobbyists and former aides representing some of the nation’s biggest businesses, including Goldman Sachs, Google, Citigroup, R. J. Reynolds, MillerCoors and UPS.

They have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaigns, provided him with rides on their corporate jets, socialized with him at luxury golf resorts and waterfront bashes and are now leading fund-raising efforts for his Boehner for Speaker campaign, which is soliciting checks of up to $37,800 each, the maximum allowed.

Some of the lobbyists readily acknowledge routinely seeking his office’s help — calling the congressman and his aides as often as several times a week — to advance their agenda in Washington. And in many cases, Mr. Boehner has helped them out.

Of course he has; many of these lobbyists worked in his office.

While many lawmakers in each party have networks of donors, lobbyists and former aides who now represent corporate interests, Mr. Boehner’s ties seem especially deep. His clique of friends and current and former staff members even has a nickname on Capitol Hill, Boehner Land. The members of this inner circle said their association with Mr. Boehner translates into open access to him and his staff.

It’s probably worth emphasizing that all of this is legal and permissible under congressional ethics rules. The point isn’t that Boehner is guilty of anything untoward; rather, the point is Boehner takes his relationship with DC’s lobbying industry quite seriously.

And as we talked about last fall, this relationship manifests itself in ways that reinforce its value. When Congress worked on a jobs bill in 2010, Boehner and his team huddled with corporate lobbyists. When work on Wall Street reform got underway, Boehner and the GOP huddled with industry lobbyists. When Congress worked on health care reform, Boehner and the GOP huddled with insurance lobbyists. When an energy/climate bill started advancing, the GOP huddled with energy lobbyists. In 2012, when the STOCK Act was being considered, the GOP huddled with financial industry lobbyists.

This is just Boehner’s m.o. And as more staffers depart the Speaker’s office for more lobbying gigs, the population of Boehnerland just keeps growing.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 24, 2013

June 25, 2013 Posted by | John Boehner | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lawmakers And Lobbyist: Cutting Out the Middleman

For six years, Doug Stafford was a lobbyist for the National Right to Work Committee, an anti-labor group financed by business and conservative interests. His job changed last year but his duties did not when he became the chief of staff to Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. Mr. Paul is a chief sponsor of the National Right to Work Act, which he said would end forced unionization and “break Big Labor’s multibillion-dollar political machine forever.”

Brett Loper’s career path is a similar one. When he was an executive for the Advanced Medical Technology Association, an industry group, he lobbied hard against President Obama’s health care reform. Now, as the chief policy adviser for Speaker John Boehner, he is helping to organize the effort to repeal the health care law. The only difference is that the taxpayers are paying his salary.

There has long been a regular shuttle service between Capitol Hill and Washington’s K Street, but the numbers now are striking. Since last year’s Republican victories, nearly 100 lawmakers have hired former lobbyists as their chiefs of staff or legislative directors, according to data compiled by two watchdog groups, the Center for Responsive Politics and Remapping Debate. That is more than twice as many as in the previous two years.

In that same period, 40 lobbyists have been hired as staff members of Congressional committees and subcommittees, the boiler rooms where legislation is drafted. That again dwarfs the number from the previous two years.

While some of those lobbyist-staffers were hired by Democrats, the vast majority are working for Republicans. Representative Raul Labrador, a freshman from Idaho, hired John Goodwin, previously a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, as his chief of staff. Representative Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, hired Howard Cohen, a longtime lobbyist for the health care industry, as his chief counsel.

In many cases, those hiring lobbyists were Tea Party candidates who vowed to end business as usual in Washington. As The Washington Post reported, when Ron Johnson ran against Wisconsin’s Senator Russ Feingold, he accused Mr. Feingold of being “on the side of special interests and lobbyists.” Now that he is a senator, Mr. Johnson has hired as his chief of staff Donald Kent, whose firms have lobbied for casinos, defense industries and homeland security companies.

Ethics laws put limits on elected officials who move to lobbying firms. But there is nothing to stop lobbyists from getting immediately hired on Capitol Hill. This year’s class of staffers argues for a tough ban. After collecting millions from industries or unions or others, lobbyists should not be allowed to turn around and write laws that favor these special interests.

By: Editorial, Opinion Pages, The New York Times, April 2, 2011

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Big Business, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Democracy, Democrats, GOP, Labor, Lawmakers, Lobbyists, Politics, Republicans, Teaparty, Union Busting, Unions | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The GOP’s Health Policy Cynics

The health care community is discovering to its shock and dismay that it’s not simply traditional Republican conservatives who have taken control of the House of Representatives, it’s a new group of cynics.

Conservatives, like liberals, have a more-or-less coherent set of ideas. They use political power to push preferred policies, whether related to health care, housing or a hundred other possible issues. William F. Buckley Jr., one of the fathers of modern American conservatism, “had a way of … making conservatism a holistic view of life not narrowed to the playing fields of ideology alone,” as one admirer put it.

Although cynics may claim conservative credentials, their view of government is really nothing more than a quarrel about its cost. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s immortal phrase, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

The contrast between the two viewpoints was on stark display at two recent marquée meetings, AcademyHealth’s yearly policy conference and the sprawling Health Information and Management Systems Society — HIMSS – Health IT Conference and Exhibition.

AcademyHealth’s “Running of the Wonks” (my term, not theirs) is a magnet for researchers and policy mavens who are inured by long experience to most political rhetoric. Yet at the general session featuring a bipartisan dialogue among congressional staffers, the harsh rhetoric from the GOP participants stunned the crowd. The new federal health law, it seemed, was evil incarnate, and the rhetoric of “repeal and replace” was wielded with a fundamentalist zeal.

“The bureaucracies that administer ObamaCare” must be cut, declared one aide to a powerful congressional leader, setting the tone. And in case anyone didn’t get the point, the word “ObamaCare” was deliberately repeated every few syllables in a tone of disdain combined with wonder at how such a monstrosity had ever come to be. (AcademyHealth meeting rules said the staffers could not be quoted by name.)

The audience of wonks quailed, then quietly queued up for the question-and-answer period. They knew, after all, that the health law’s fine print incorporates a generous helping of initiatives championed by both conservatives, and those on the left. Besides, these were staffers speaking, not politicians playing to the press. Surely, gentle reason would triumph. Alas, it was not to be.

The Prevention and Public Health Fund? “You mean, the prevention health slush fund, as we like to refer to it?” replied a GOP staffer.

The Innovation Center at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services? “An innovation center at CMS is an oxymoron,” responded a  Republican aide, before adding a personal barb aimed at the attendees: “Though it’s great for PhDs who come to Washington on the government tab.”

There was also no reason the government should pay for “so-called comparative effectiveness research,” another said.

“Everything’s on the chopping block,” said yet another.

Everything? At HIMSS, where GOP staffers also spoke, attendees were chagrined to learn that “everything” applied to them, too. The subsidies for health information technology that were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were targeted in legislation introduced in late January by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Group. His bill would repeal this funding and eliminate all remaining stimulus spending, including about $45 billion in unspent health IT funds.

Those focused on the substance of health policy might be forgiven for feeling blindsided. After all, the McCain-Palin health policy platform in the 2008 presidential election called for coordinated care, greater use of health information technology and a focus on Medicare payment for value, not volume. Once-and-future Republican presidential candidates such as former governors Mike Huckabee (Ark.), Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Tim Pawlenty (Minn.), as well as ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, have long promoted disease prevention, a more innovative federal government and increased use of information technology. Indeed, federal health IT “meaningful use” requirements can even be seen as a direct consequence of Gingrich’s popularization of the phrase, “Paper kills.”

Ah, but that was back before the Republican cynics swept into power. It was back before traditional GOP conservatives — worried that any suggestions outside a single-minded focus on slashing spending would be seen as disloyal — eschewed ideas in favor of ideological declarations.

This column was filed just days after a two-week compromise was signed into law to avoid a federal government shutdown. It allowed funding for health reform to continue, but instituted other budget cuts. Obviously, the cynics yielded a bit, at least for the moment, to the conservatives, and the liberals and centrists have given ground to both.

Still, one wonders what the urbane Buckley would think of a movement that seems intent on ignoring the real-world context of its actions. Buckley launched his lifetime crusade against liberalism with God and Man at Yale, a book that took aim at the academics who’d taught him as an Ivy League undergraduate. Alas, the GOP cynics are cocooned instead in an underground bunker of their own design, as impervious to realities they’d prefer to ignore as the ivory tower academics they’ve come to scorn.

By: Michael Millenson, The Health Care Blog, March 9, 2011. Post Originally appeared in Kaiser Health News.

March 13, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Reform, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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