Anyone who has spent time in Mexico knows what bribery is about, and, as one who has spent the better part of four decades in Washington, D.C., I also know what it is when I see it, even if it is called something else. Most definitions of bribery say that it is giving that there money or something else of value to influence an official to do something you want them to do, and then the word unethical is included. Influence peddling is sometimes similar to bribery only if criminal intent is established. Lobbying is the same, except the word illegal is not included. Most estimates are that there was $4.1 billion spent in federal lobbying in 2022. Quid pro quo is described the same as lobbying. I have witnessed all of these things in Washington, D.C. One might conclude that they are all the same except they are not all legal. Did you ever wonder what makes one legal and another illegal? What’s the difference? Is it proving criminal intent?
The company I was working for in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the D.C. suburbs was expanding very fast and had reached its capacity, and the demand for its products was growing faster than it could expand. It was manufacturing sensitive radios for use in the Cold War. I was tasked with finding subcontractors to produce some of their subassemblies to alleviate the problem. A subcontractor that I found earlier was a Native American operation in Oklahoma that specialized in making edge-lit panels for use in airplane cockpits enablingthe controls and instrument panels in nighttime conditions. We needed the same for our receivers that were deployed in airplanes. This was a highly specialized operation, and they were a reliable supplier. This positive experience prompted me to seek other Native American operations as potential subcontractors.
In order to accelerate my search, I decided to make an appointment with someone at the Department of the Interior that was involved in Indian Affairs. When I arrived at the appointment, I was ushered into an office and introduced to the individual responsible for overseeing Indian Affairs. After the brief introductions I proceeded to explain why I was there. I told him I wanted to contract with Indian operations that possessed skills in producing electronic subassemblies for my company. I briefly explained what my company made and what our market was. This is when the conversation turned in a different direction than I expected. The Department of Interior person started to explain several scenarios whereby if we contracted in certain electoral districts, we could get congressional support for funding for our products in return. He assumed that is why I was there, while I only wanted to identify potential companies that I could qualify to be potential suppliers. I assume that in his world there would be no other reason for my visit except to set up a quid pro quo arrangement, but that was nothing I wanted any part of. I let him drone on about which situation would be the best and where all parties would get the most out of it. Finally, he paused and said to me, “Did I get myself in trouble?” I guess this is where it gets illegal if it is exposed. I did not answer him, and just thanked him for his input and excused myself.
So, let’s suppose that I was there for what he assumed I came there for.
What would happen would be that the congressional representative in the district where I placed the subcontract would hold a news conference and brag about how he or she had worked hard to get the subcontract placed in their district that provided X numbers of jobs. There would be TV interviews and photo shoots about the event. That representative would then lend his or her support to a defense budget that would specifically call out a requirement for my company’s products. This is how the swamp works. It is only illegal if it is exposed and criminal intent can be established.
During the late ‘80s I was the elected president of an international trade association, and our association had our own hospital insurance plan that was available to our member companies. We even administrated the plan with our own staff. It had worked great for decades before, but health insurance reform was introduced during the Clinton administration. This is when hospitalization insurance became health insurance. Prior to this, most of the public was content to have insurance that basically covered major health events that required hospitalization and would pay out of pocket for all other health care. Health care reform centered on covering all medical needs. This stimulated many U.S. states to introduce their own mandates for what health insurance was required to cover in their respective jurisdictions. Since my association insured our member firms in all 50 states, and over half of the states had different mandates, it essentially put us out of the health insurance business, leaving our members to find individual plans at some magnitude of the cost. Our association, along with many others like us, realized the need for federal insurance reform that would allow us to have the same rules for all states just like the big corporations who were already immune to the state mandates. This would require federal laws to be changed for us to have the same exception as big corporations. This piece of legislation was labeled Association Health Plans, or AHP for short. Several associations, including mine, joined together with a small business lobby in Washington, D.C., called the Small Business Legislation Council (SBLC), and since I lived near D.C., I was drafted to participate in the lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. This experience was part of my tuition to the school of how the sauce is really made in D.C.
We made appointments with some key members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to make our case for them to support AHP legislation. Our cause centered around the fact that almost half of USA private sector employees work at small businesses. The premiums for health insurance for those employees would increase exponentially if they were forced to seek individual coverage since associations were now currently excluded from any federal exemption from the state mandates. It seemed like a solid argument to us since all we were seeking was to get the legislation to a vote in Congress. We quickly learned that most of those we interviewed said they would support this legislation if it were to get to the floor for a vote, but they said that without getting a few powerful members of Congress to endorse this legislation, it would never get to the floor. Our lobby group did not have the resources needed to get those that closely held the power to endorse our piece of legislation. In D.C. money talks and everything else walks.
We did the best we could through two administrations, and even got tacit support from the White House, but AHP died without ever getting on the agenda for a vote in Congress.
If you are curious why it didn’t get to a vote you could conclude that health insurance companies had a different agenda. Forcing small businesses to pay much higher premiums increased their profits. SBLC couldn’t compete with the insurance lobby, which is part of the health care lobby, which is the largest lobby group in D.C. In 2022 pharmaceuticals and health products lobby spent almost $374 million, and the health insurance lobby spent a little over $158 million. To get this in prospective, defense contractors only spent about $100 million in lobbying during the same period. From that you might conclude that pills are much more important to our government than our national defense.
The other factor was that many in power at that time were pushing for universal health care and if AHP were passed it would be much harder to “sell” their agenda to the public. Having half of the previously insured having coverage would enhance their agenda and that would not be the case if AHP passed. Creating a crisis always seems to work in D.C. as then the legislators can rush in and save the day.
In the ‘60s my late wife worked at a newly formed agency that eventually became the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. In order to effectively conduct their work, they needed more PhD nuclear physicists. In the ‘60s there were not many qualified candidates since nuclear science was a fairly new science. To accelerate the recruitment of qualified candidates they embarked on a program of extending grants to promising candidates who, upon graduating, would work for the agency for a minimum number of years. The grant program included a generous stipend that those who were selected were paid to get their degree. My wife was the grants administrator, and her boss made the final decision on those seeking the grants. I have never witnessed such overt behavior from anyone before as what occurred with the candidates. They never missed an opportunity to promote themselves to my wife, me, her boss, and his wife. It bordered on the ridiculous on several occasions when they were all together at social events, and they tried to outdo each other. Based on their comments, one would think that we were talking with the next Oppenheimer. What I found fascinating was that they assumed that I had anything to do with their selection when I did not, nor did my wife’s boss’s wife. I guess they wanted to cover all the possibilities, just in case it came up in casual conversation, and that never happened either. I guess that shameless self-promotion is endemic to Washington D.C. In the end I believe that the selections were made on a fair and impartial basis even though I never discussed it with my wife. Just another aspect of living in the swamp.
What we hear about many key issues facing the country is a sanitized version of the truth fashioned to fit the narrative they are trying to promote. There is a thin line between what is legal and what is not. Legality is determined by intent and that is a tall order to prove. I am glad I am not in the judicial system charged with making that distinction. I still struggle with the fact that an enormous amount of money is spent in Washington D.C. to buy influence, and all of this seems to be legal, but I wonder how just it is.
My daughter, who spent her career as a attorney, once commented to me, “Dad, don’t confuse what is right with what the law determines, they are two different things.” As profound as that is, it still leaves me unsatisfied.
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