Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

« Diagnosing Proposals for Healthcare Reform | Main | Assessing a "Public Option" for Health Care »

Michael Winship: Pay-to-Play Is Washington’s Sport of Kings

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

''Pay-to-Play Is Washington’s Sport of Kings''
By Michael Winship

As we marvel over the depths of hypocrisy and greed currently plumbed in the health care reform debate, it may help to remember that even Honest Abe Lincoln had his share of tainted colleagues, one of the most notorious of whom was his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron.

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s TEAM OF RIVALS, when Lincoln asked radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens how corrupt Cameron was, Stevens paused and replied, “I don’t think he would steal a red hot stove.” When Cameron objected, Stevens allowed that maybe he was wrong -- implying that the cabinet secretary would steal a hot stove.

Cameron resigned after less than a year in office, plagued by allegations of war profiteering and overall ineptitude. He’s largely forgotten now, but something he supposedly said is immortalized in the lexicon of famous sayings about money and government.

“An honest politician,” he declared, “is one who when he is bought, stays bought.”

The giants of the health care industry fighting legitimate reform will soon discover whether all the money they’re spent on lobbying has worked yet again and which of the politicians they have showered with campaign contributions will toe the line and stay bought, thwarting the desires of the majority of the American people.

This week, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that in the second quarter of this year alone, the pharmaceuticals and health product industries spent $67,959,095 on lobbying, and the insurance industry $39,760,477. Another $25,552,088 were spent by lobbyists for hospitals and nursing homes. That’s a total of $133,271,660 in just three months, and that’s not even counting the lobbying money spent to fight health care reform by professional associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Just to further roil your ire comes news from McAllen, Texas, reported in the July 30 NEW YORK TIMES: “One of the largest sources of campaign contributions to Senate Democrats during this year’s health care debate is a physician-owned hospital in one of the country’s poorest regions that has sought to soften measures that could choke its rapid growth.

“The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee collected nearly $500,000 at a reception here on March 30, mostly from physicians and others affiliated with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, financial disclosure records show.”

A June article in THE NEW YORKER magazine painted a devastating portrait of the sky high costs of physician-owned hospitals in the McAllen area and President Obama has cited it often. But money talks, and the TIMES notes that, “Thus far, physician-owned hospitals have been insulated from some of the most onerous potential restrictions in the health care legislation moving through Congress.”

Business as usual amongst the dough-driven denizens of Washington, DC, where they may as well replace the national anthem with Randy Newman’s “It’s Money that I Love,” and Pay-to-Play is the sport of kings.

Anything and anybody are up for sale in the capital. You’ll recall the story in early July about the intimate dinner party WASHINGTON POST publisher Katharine Weymouth was planning. Her soiree would have brought the paper’s reporters and editors covering health care reform together with officials from the White House and members of Congress.

But she also invited CEO’s and lobbyists – at $25,000 a pop, or a quarter of a million if they wanted to underwrite a series of these intimate salons. The invitation offered, "An exclusive opportunity to participate in the health care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done."

The dinner was scrapped when the WASHINGTON POST invitation leaked to the press. But such exclusive events where the elite meet to eat – for a price – are standard operating procedure in DC. THE ECONOMIST magazine and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL have hosted intimate salons. Atlantic Media, publisher of THE ATLANTIC magazine and NATIONAL JOURNAL, among other publications, has been holding off-the-record, get-togethers for the last six years, with such corporate sponsors as Microsoft, General Electric, Citigroup, Allstate Insurance and the healthcare giant AstraZeneca.

Atlantic Media is now taking it one step further, moving their exclusive party to the Internet, where NATIONAL JOURNAL has announced a new, “policy-oriented” Web site called 3121, named after the phone extension for the U.S. Capitol switchboard. It’s exclusively for members of Congress and their staffs. Well, almost exclusively.

I can’t log onto it – and neither can you, assuming you’re not a senator, representative or somebody who works for one. But guess what? If you’re a lobbyist, you can buy your way in.
The Web site’s marketing kit promises that you’ll be able to “build connections and start a valuable conversation with a targeted group of some of the most powerful people in the political world.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for a mere $295,000, you can be 3121’s “Premier Promotional” sponsor. That means you get, quote, “exclusive rights to all advertising on 3121 from site launch in September” through the end of the year. You’ll also be invited to the Web site’s launch party and what they’re calling “Innovation Happy Hours,” so order your hats and noisemakers now.

What’s that you say? You can’t afford nearly $300,000? Tell you what I’m gonna do. For a mere $95,000 you can buy what they’re calling a “Research and Education” package that gives you a sneak preview of 3121 and access to Capitol Hill insiders helping out with the Web design and learning how to use it.

At least if you buy into 3121 you know the Web site stays bought, like Simon Cameron’s definition of an honest politician. For sheer, unmitigated chutzpah, I give you the American Conservative Union (ACU), prostituting its vaunted philosophical purity in pursuit of filthy lucre.

It seems FedEx, the package delivery megacorporation, is facing a change in law that may hurt its competitive advantage over United Parcel Service. Legislation pending in Congress would level the playing field. As columnist Thomas Frank explained in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, “Employees of UPS are covered by one labor law – the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) – while employees of FedEx are governed by a different one, a law that makes it much harder for them to organize a union. Lots of UPS’s employees are organized; few of FedEx’s are.”

As Frank wrote, the idea that Congress might give FedEx employees “more of a chance to have a say about work conditions” ruffled the company’s feathers. Enter the American Conservative Union – which seeks to be "the conservative voice in Washington," according to its Web site – and which said it would back FedEx’s opposition to the legislation with direct mail, e-mail and phone campaigns, radio ads and the creation of op-ed and other articles by ACU president David Keene and members of its board.

The ACU said it would only charge FedEx, oh, say, somewhere between two and three million dollars, maybe up to $3.4 million, for its services.

FedEx refused to sign for the package. So without batting an eye, the ACU switched its allegiance to UPS, accusing FedEx of fighting dirty. How brave, how principled. How corrupt.

Summer is no time to be in Washington, the sun and humidity so oppressive that someone once described the sensation as akin to living inside the mouth of a very large dog. But it’s not the heat creating the rancid aroma rising from the city. It’s the panting exhaust created by the pursuit of money, regardless of country or party or philosophy. It’s money that they love, and nothing will change until we disable the ka-ching of the giant Washington cash register and use the money to buy the Pay-to-Players a one way bus ticket out of town.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


TrackBack URL for this entry:


I'm going to take out a title loan, is a decent interest percent between 10 - 17% ?

Jack Martin,
I appreciate your comprehensive reply.
Karl Marx and what communism came to be were one hundred eighty degrees out.
What Plato wrote in the "Republic" and what the Republicans have become is also one hundred and eighty degrees out.
From what I can gather from experiencing life and that abundant; The world was intended to be a paradise. People got off to a very bad start. We have turned a paradise into a garbage dump. There are still some remanants of paradise and most people still would not give up their life if they could avoid it.
Hopefully, this and us are just prototypes and reality is designed to progress and not regress.

"If there is a Creator, DCE, it has been my experience that she tends to utilize the natural laws of physics, biology and anthropology and does not resort to grandstanding. I could accept a God that guided our hearts to peace and plenty (including time)."
Jack Martin

The natural laws of physics, biology and anthropology existed prior to humans and are only part of the complex system of order that makes a functional and comprehensive reality possible.
Religion aside; the reality we experience is obviously designed to make life possible. How it came about is through a process of rational development. Even with our limited brain capacity, we should be able to understand that fact.
The natural laws of physics, biology and anthropology existed prior to humans and are only part of the complex system of order that makes a comprehensive reality possible. Religion aside; the reality we experience is obviously designed to make life possible. How it came about is through a process of rational development. Even with our limited brain capacity, we should be able to understand that fact.
It will take a major paradigm to change us and nature. However, reality will appear much as it does now because of cause and effect and the necessary methods needed to provide a functional and comprehensive reality that provides a dynamic change sequence.

DCE: "Hopefully, there will be a new heaven and a new earth populated by perfect people who will live in peace and prosperity as was originally intended." How close this sounds to the utopianism of Karl Marx, as explained in "Alienation" by Bertell Ollman. Is God gonna make more of the things we are wasting?

Not everything from conservative lips is a lie, but often a strategic half-truth. (Democrats give selected testimony too.) Tom Coburn rightly stated that "Cash for Clunkers" only temporarily accelerates car buying and will result in a lag after it ends. He failed to complete the critique. No one has accounted for the good vehicles destroyed to complete the deal. (Lost energy and labor.)Corruption is another result (as in Germany)where dealers are sending 4-wheeled smokestacks to Eastern Europe and Africa (If you've been to Egypt, the first thing you notice is the ancient wrecks still chugging the streets.) The tendency of this program is environmentally negative, mostly due to pollution created when new vehicles are manufactured. (The auto age may be ending by default. I hope so.) But the greatest injustice of car welfare is the updraft of wealth and the propping up of an expired technology. Not that many poorer people will benefit, and many of the better off purchasers would have bought a new car anyway. Some of the most selfish and ecologically unaware people have thus been rewarded. And is a car dealership a community asset? Maybe not. Most showrooms are tawdry dens of deception and the service bays not much better. Car dealerships are mainly good as a front for criminal activity and as front loading washers for drug money laundering. Big names, dirty or not, on the marquee reinforce the irrational worship of celebrity. So I surmise that "Cash for Clunkers" is a backward program that generally sucks. Maybe it's just Obama's way of buying votes. (Hugo Chavez and even Putin hand out chickens and bread.) And the loans will still have to be paid with a shrinking workforce and high unemployment(Remember "juking the stats" as discussed by David Simon? Unemploment is about 16% when analytical filters are removed)
How many poor souls will see their high mileage dreamboats repossessed? What's next; car payment stamps?" (And I'm a so-called socialist? You bet, as honest as they come.)

Hopefully, there will be a new style of community and empire will pass away peacefully. People will not be perfect but they will be more aware and caring than at present. They will use renewable energy and sustainable technology. Food will be local and wholesome. Public transportation, walkways and bikeways will supercede highways and the pace of life will slow. Contentment and solidarity will overshadow the former speculative success ethic ecomomy. Education will be ongoing and desegregated. People will vary tasks and learn by doing. Politics will originate locally so that every voice can be heard, every vote taken and counted, and a workable consensus reached. Politics will no longer require much money, nor will a worthy life.

If there is a Creator, DCE, it has been my experience that she tends to utilize the natural laws of physics, biology and anthropology and does not resort to grandstanding. I could accept a God that guided our hearts to peace and plenty (including time).

Failed Senate seniority system allows The Red Herrings of which plan is less bad to muddy the waters & once again the Mainstreeters minds are muddled as in the Paulson's emergency $700 Billion for his wall street Buds!

No Accountability & No Responsibility seems to be the mantra of the Dummi-crats and Rip-ya-off-plicans!

We need a Mainstreet Party of Can-Do People to replace all in Congress up for election!

Billy Bob, Florida

Jack Martin,
Dealing with reality is probably people's most important skill...
Religion is an important factor in our interaction with reality. People do not "live by bread alone" is an understatement. We live in complex binary system of physicaal and mental systems. We have to cope with all of the elements of reality.
Our technology is far more advanced than our social skills. It even seems that we were designed to cope with a perfect world and not the survival of the fittest physical reality in which we must function. Social systems including religion should help us cope with reality but instead; it is often the case that these systems work against us.
It is important to understand that these systems are faluable just as we are faluable. It is necessary that both our social skills and our practical skills are adequite for the job of living our lives.
Cognitive skills are also a vital element of survival. We must be able to convert perception into concepts that are realistic and acurate.
That said; I was actively encouraging Christians to become politically active instead of being sheep to the slaughter. It was a big disapointment when They supported Bush's madness in direct contradiction to the teachings of Christ. They were manipulated by fear and supported inhumanity to man. So goes the "weakness of the flesh". We have to be able to deal with that irony too.
Hopefully, there will be a new heaven and a new earth populated by perfect people who will live in peace and prosperity as was originally intended.

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship seem to be hopscotching back and forth between health care debating and insistence that organized religion represents some sort of solution to citizen powerlessness. I wished Michael had read "The Homeless Mind" (Berger: 1971) in which an honest theologian/sociologist observes (esp. pgs. 184-6) the failure of theodices (cultural level moral references)with the compartmentalization of religion. I cite this work for its glaring similarities with my overall impression of Moyers' thought. Berger did not predict it but institutionalized religion responded by becoming instrumental and politically polarized, securing a market niche but becoming increasingly irrational and narrowly focused. Unless the Christian literalists are proven correct by a rapture or an apocalypse I can see little purpose in either marketing denominations or in related millenialist evangelical movements. This culture is so profoundly fragmented and contradictory that religion is now little more than another hobby or fad. Those who indulge too deeply without a solid business plan risk destitution. By the same token, faith based social work is always discriminatory, sectarian and self-serving. Voluntary religious acts of charity can be culturally sustaining, but become rarer as polarization of wealth intensifies. Using religion as a vehicle of corporate manipulation is futile, just another deception. I'm tired of seeing your presentations about ineffectual good intentions, Bill and Michael. How about inviting Chris Hedges back again sometime so discussion can get real.

It is more like "pay to get your way". Why should we pay representatives when they are already paid off by lobbyists? What a farce. Government is our only protection from greedy and dishonest organizations. Lobbying is the built in plumbing that corrupts the Government and pollutes our economic system.
Everyone losses except the high rollers.
Economics needs to be a dynamic exchange of goods and services that meets the needs of the society. This is not socialism; it is efficient function.
If we do not avoid corruption; we will all pay the price. Chaos is not a pretty picture.

This article deserves a 'Frontline' along with reporting since Reagan's presidency on the 'revolving door' issue, extremely important nowadays as Mr. Moyers has observed many times in his commentaries. The insularity of the Washingtonian community has become poisonous to the Republic.

The concept of insurance is to spread the risk among all who pay the same rate which means some pay for years and never have a claim and the luck of the draw has others making a claiming every year. Our current for profit system cuts out those who make claims and keeps those who don't and is therefore more profitable. Its a win win situation or them. Policy holders are like wheat or corn to be harvested for the advantage of the top executive. The executives running the for profit plans get paid on profits. The executive gets paid on the profitability

I don't mind profit but its unconscionable to make it by only taking customers who make no claims. That is tilting the entire concept from insurance to a way to make money first and foremost. Then after years of no claims they are dropped if they make a claim.

I dont mind profits but I can buy my medication for less with out Meidcare D than with it. Thats a fact.

I am forced to pay a premium. I cant sue and have no way to negotiated or sure for excess by law. Its a guaranteed profit for big pharma. No business can justify raising the premium 100% doubling co pay and removing all the drugs used by the policy holder the previous year unless they have no competition.
There is no competition and no way for me to sue for abuse when it happens.

I have to go to my congressman and complain. Thats all I can do and it that doesnt work I have no other resource,

This is not free trade this is not free because both sides are not free to bargain and there is no competition.

Thats whats wrong

I have no immediate solution, but consider this:

Al Gore wrote that the problem is television. The candidiate who can buy
the most TV ads wins.

What if the schools and colleges changed their focus from rewarding the regurgitation of facts to developing thinking skills? This might give the candidate who could provide the best argument for her or his plan a good chance of winning.

David Besser

Dear Michael...

What you and almost every other soul "covering" our "best government that money can buy" in Washington is the "quo" of the "quid pro quo" equation.

That is, you fail to look at the benefits reaped by the industries that make these multi-million-dollar donations.

It may have been Newsweek, in an article some years ago, that used the term "Return on Political Investment," or ROPI.

In the article, the author did the calculations: this many millions of dollars invested for (as it turned out in every case) this many BILLIONS of dollars in return. With "ROPI"s of not 18%, 90%, 200%, but in the 12,853% (per cent, not dollars) range. In other words, the "best government money can buy" is also about the most stupid government that money has bought--these chumps are selling out the country and their constituents for chump-change--a few hundredths of a penny on the dollar.

I'd propose that we allow any and all manner of contributions, require that donors and recipients post the who, what when details OVERNIGHT on the internet, into their gov't.-mandated Financial Benefits public internet accounts, and that, come tax time every year, the corporations and government officials face the Windfall ROPI Profits Tax. The tax would kick in at 5.56%, so any profits over that 5.56% would be taxed. At a rate of 100%.

As a concomitant, I would have the FCC set aside a half-dozen or so broadcast channels where all political candidate ads and political issues ads could be aired. For FREE.

These measures would perhaps contribute more to "take the profit out of political bribery/contributions" and to "take the EXPENSE out of campaigning" than any other measures I've ever heard tell of over the years.

And perhaps, without the astronomical profits on political investments, and with the ability of low-funded candidates and issues to get heard/seen for free on all broadcast outlets, we might begin to restore some semblance of balance between "We the People" and the Corporatocracy that currently runs our country.

These two measures would certainly represent a useful start.

A third measure would be the requirement of a Financial Benefit Statement as part of every piece of legislation and regulation coming out of Washington: Who got paid what by whom, and who expects to benefit, and by how much, by said legis- and regulation. Updated overnight when there's a change in estimates and/or actual payouts of the ROPI.

Week after week, Moyers bring us issue after issue. He and his guests discuss the problems with healthcare, the economy, political discourse, global warming, gun control, and the list goes on and on. In a since, he’s just spinning his wheels. What good does it do to talk about any of these issues when the people who should be listening have already turned their backs to them? Before we can have any meaningful legislation passed in Washington, the lobbyists need to be separated from our Congress. It is as simple as that.

Money in Washington is like the illusion of a drug. So many freshman congresspersons have gone there thinking they were in control and that they could handle it. They start off with big plans on changing Washington, but then after a year or two it is they themselves who have been changed. And just like junkies, they are now like the seasoned veterans who rationalize why Congress operates the way it does. How many great minds has Congress lost to this drug? And, when will Congress go to rehab? We all know what needs to be done—they need to be isolated from their pushers.

Michael, the numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics are incredible.

The Sport of Kings indeed!

Michael, the numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics are incredible.

Sport of Kings indeed!

Post a comment

THE MOYERS BLOG is our forum for viewers' comments intended for discussing and debating ideas and issues raised on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL. THE MOYERS BLOG invites you to share your thoughts. We are committed to keeping an open discussion; in order to preserve a civil, respectful dialogue, our editors reserve the right to remove or alter any comments that we find unacceptable, for any reason. For more information, please click here.

A Companion Blog to Bill Moyers Journal

Your Comments


THE JOURNAL offers a free podcast and vodcast of all weekly episodes. (help)

Click to subscribe in iTunes

Subscribe with another reader

Get the vodcast (help)

For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ