Congressional candy store now open
Rushing to adjourn for the year, the lame-duck Congress has just given an early indication of what to expect next year: brazen codling on behalf of the biggest contributors to their campaigns. This time, it comes in the guise of "homeland security" and "terrorism insurance."
Start with the new Department of Homeland Security. While this massive government re-organization may ultimately result in better coordination among the far-flung bureaucracies tasked with protecting U.S. borders, waters, crops, imports, airports, and politicians, one might ask why House legislators felt it necessary to take the straightforward bill they passed earlier this year and tuck a host of unrelated provisions into the version they sent to the SenateÃ¯Â¿Â½in "take it or leave it" fashion.
The revised bill will limit legal liability for companies that produce vaccines, a gift to drug manufacturer Eli Lilly, which faces lawsuits from families touting new research which connects thimerasol, a preservative used in vaccines, to autism. Pharmaceutical companies gave more than $19 million to federal candidates and parties in the last election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that, the number one giver was Eli Lilly, which provided at least $1.6 million, 79 percent to Republicans. These totals don't include the estimated $30 million spent by drug makers on TV ads backing Republican candidates from front groups with innocuous sounding names like "United Seniors Association" and "Citizens for Better Medicare." (The final total will be higher, as these figures don't include the last two weeks of the election.)
Another provision that sailed through the House, and ultimately the Senate, will undo a ban originally sponsored by the late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) on any government contracts related to homeland security going to companies that use foreign tax havens to avoid U.S. taxes. A bi-partisan Who's Who of ex-elected officials turned mercenaries lobbied for the amendment, including former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, former House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-TX), Bush family confidant Charlie Black, former House Appropriations Committee chairman Robert L. Livingston (R-LA), and former Keating Five Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ.). Among the companies seeking the measure: Accenture, the Arthur Andersen spin-off; scandal-ridden Tyco International, and toolmaker Ingersoll-Rand.
When these and other special-interest provisions came to light, many Senators complained vociferously and Democrats, along with Republican maverick John McCain (R-AZ), tried to get them excised. But they lost that fight after the White House and Republican leaders promised to tone down the offending provisions with corrective legislation sometime next year. Don't hold your breath: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has already stated that he only agreed to "consider" any such changes.
At almost the same time, Congress gave final approval to a bill demanded by the insurance and real estate industries providing up to $100 billion over three years to cover 90 percent of future terrorism-related insurance claims. Government aid would kick in if terrorism-related losses exceed minimum levels of an insurance company's premiums, which in some cases could mean that taxpayers will be liable from an insurer's first dollar of losses. In addition, insurers would be required to repay very little or no federal assistance. This approach is a marked departure from the original House bill, passed last winter, that would have required insurers to cover the first $1 billion cost of a terrorist attack, with the federal government offering long-term loans to help pay for the rest. But the insurance industry wanted direct aid and lobbied hard for the Senate version promoted by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), that would have insurers pay for the first $10 billion of an attack out-of-pocket but then put taxpayers on the hook for the rest.
The insurance and real estate industries are among the biggest contributors to political campaigns, having supplied $27.5 million and $42 million in just the 2001-02 cycle alone. Senator Dodd has received $562,000 from the insurance industry during his career in the Senate, putting him at #7 among all his colleagues in takings from that lucrative source. He called the final bill a vital "safety net" for the insurance business.
Meanwhile, the two million Americans whose unemployment benefits are expiring in the next few months won't see their safety net extended anytime soon. Congress's adjourning means the death of a $4.5 billion Senate proposal that would have extended the current temporary unemployment insurance program passed earlier this year. Many will lose their benefits just before Christmas. The Senate had hoped to give another 13 weeks of benefits to people whose unemployment checks run out after December, with 26 weeks for workers in high unemployment states. Alas, these average folks don't have the cash to pay Bob Dole or Chris Dodd to look after their interests.