Leader Blues

Saturday, January 02, 2010

EDITORIAL >> High-dollar propaganda

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that marks the sparrow’s fall with Washington spending, reports that industry groups spent more than $600 million this year to influence members of Congress on the health-care overhaul and another $200 million on television advertising on the legislation. It did not break the spending down between pro and con, but you can be sure that the vast preponderance of the money was directed against the various insurance reform measures making their way through Congress.

That is because most of the money was spent by segments of the health industry, principally insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and their allies like the United States Chamber of Commerce.

There is good news and bad news for us in the figures, which include only part of the year. (A full accounting of the whole propaganda campaign will approach $2 billion or perhaps much more.) The good news is that Arkansas got more than its pro-rata share of the spending because Arkansas members of Congress were viewed as vacillating and vulnerable to pressure. They also happened to be keys in the close voting in both the House and Senate. Arkansas television stations and the large newspapers, which Lord knows needed the money, enjoyed a huge infusion of cash owing to the advertising directed at our senators and congressmen: “Tell Blanche Lincoln . . . .”

The bad news is that the campaign badly misinformed Arkansas people about what was at stake in the bills. People were told that the health bills would drive up the federal budget deficits (they would lower them), create a vast bureaucracy that would dictate medical treatment (they wouldn’t), deprive seniors of their Medicare insurance (they would improve Medicare coverage for a huge majority of seniors) and amount to a government “takeover” of health care (they will produce the biggest expansion of private health insurance in history).

All the spending identified by the Center for Responsive Politics, which covered the first nine months of the year and did not include the hundreds of millions spent on lobbying Congress in 2008, did not include the scores of millions spent by insurance companies to persuade seniors to convert their Medicare insurance to a Medicare Advantage HMO plan, which is a huge taxpayer subsidy to the profits of insurance companies. Every Medicare recipient was bombarded with pitches in almost every day’s mail for three months, along with newspaper and TV ads. The more people they could sign up would be more people who would get excited about legislative attempts to reduce the wasteful subsidies.

The blizzard of glib and earnest-sounding ads worked, as they always have. People became genuinely frightened about what will happen to their health care, and public-opinion polls, which only nine months ago showed a huge majority of people favoring a system of government-backed universal health coverage, now show it fairly close between opponents and supporters. As former President Bill Clinton observed, those fears will be overcome by truth when the legislation actually takes effect. That happened with Social Security and Medicare, which became fantastically popular.

It is worth noting that in 1974, our own congressman, Wilbur D. Mills of White County, introduced a bill providing more sweeping insurance coverage than either of the bills that passed one house of Congress in 2009. So did President Richard Nixon and his health and human services secretary, Caspar Weinberger (known to most of us as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense in the next decade). They couldn’t quite get together on a final bill (Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was a participant, too), and Nixon’s impeachment troubles and Mills’ own brush with infamy that fall scuttled the whole deal for what would prove to be another 35 years.

They faced the same cabal of protective interests — the insurance industry and parts of the medical establishment — but the spending by the industry then amounted to less than $5 million. To have overcome a propaganda machine willing to spend billions, not just millions — now that is an accomplishment.

Let us in Arkansas be thankful for the huge economic stimulus from the propaganda money but also for the courage of lawmakers to do what is clearly best for the great majority of the citizenry.