The joke for newbie Montana state legislators is that if you can’t find a bathroom just ask a lobbyist; they’re everywhere, and they know the Capitol better than anyone. What’s true for the Capitol is also true for our government: Lobbyists know it better than we do. They use this knowledge to bend policy that is meant to work for Montanans to instead work for their clients in industry and business.
That is why it disturbed me to see just how much control lobbyists are exerting over our state legislators. Reports this week show a health care lobbyist (by definition paid for by the industry) “co-authored" two op-eds published in this newspaper. Only his name wasn’t on them. Instead, they were “authored” by two state legislators. Yes, this happens often. No, that does not make it right.
And last week, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction joined South Carolina and Wyoming’s superintendents on a panel promoting public school privatization. Who was the host for these three officials that are supposed to be fighting for public schools? Notorious corporate and lobbyist-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
When people talk about “the establishment” in politics, this is what they mean. Small groups of well-paid, well-connected lobbyists working with elected officials on policy that affects not only the companies they work for, but the people of our state.
We wonder why it’s so hard to fundamentally change a health care system that places corporate profits over the health of real people. We have allowed a broken political system to be hijacked by endless amounts of corporate money and influence. Look at the stage for the next Democratic presidential primary debate. You won’t see Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock, whose candidacy was driven by getting dark and corporate money out of politics. But, you will see at least one self-financed billionaire. (Seriously, there could be two.)
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The Democratic Party was once engaged in a fruitful and honest discussion: Which path to universal health care coverage is best? But it is now a fight infiltrated by outside forces. These lobbyists don’t care which plan is best. Their corporate backers’ profits are threatened by any real reform. So they undermine honest debate by writing op-eds for state legislators. They trot out half-measure replacements they know won’t pass. All to keep their bottom lines happy.
One of these half-measures has been put forth by a fellow Democratic candidate in Montana’s U.S. House race: To allow those aged 55 - 65 to buy into Medicare. If you are a rich, 58-year-old health care lobbyist, then this is your plan. But it should offend the rest of us. It cuts off real reform and is cynically aimed at a desirable voting demographic. Most importantly, the rest of us, people like my sister and I, cannot wait 25 years for health care.
So be suspicious when Democrats, supposedly the party of the people, call the majority of their own party members’ views “extreme” or “misguided”. What is misguided, and what we all should agree upon, is the extreme control that lobbyists exert over our government.
And furthermore, be suspicious of half-measures. We must look at any candidate toeing the industry line and ask: “Why?” The answer is sometimes sincerely-held policy belief. Sometimes industry and the public good go hand-in-hand. But more often those arguing for small ideas have had their larger ones ground down by politics as usual. Or, they may have just spent too much time with lobbyists.