February 09, 2006

Frist and the Back Room Deal

It's always nice when the news outlets in a Senator's home state use words like "rig bill for drug firms" in their headlines referring to said Senator.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert engineered a backroom legislative maneuver to protect pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits, say witnesses to the pre-Christmas power play.

The language was tucked into a Defense Department appropriations bill at the last minute without the approval of members of a House-Senate conference committee, say several witnesses, including a top Republican staff member.

snippity snip

Beyond the issue of vaccine liability protection, some say going around the longstanding practice of bipartisan House-Senate conference committees' working out compromises on legislation is a dangerous power grab by Republican congressional leaders that subverts democracy.

"It is a travesty of the legislative process," said Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"It vests enormous power in the hands of congressional leaders and private interests, minimizes transparency and denies legitimate opportunities for all interested parties, in Congress and outside, to weigh in on important policy questions."

At issue is what happened Dec. 18 as Congress scrambled to finish its business and head home for the Christmas holiday.

That day, a conference committee made up of 38 senators and House members met several times to work out differences on the 2006 Defense Department appropriations bill.

He said, he said.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the ranking minority House member on the conference committee, said he asked Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the conference chairman, whether the vaccine liability language was in the massive bill or would be placed in it.

Obey and four others at the meeting said Stevens told him no. Committee members signed off on the bill and the conference broke up.

Uh-oh, witnesses.

A spokeswoman for Stevens, Courtney Boone, said last week that the vaccine liability language was in the bill when conferees approved it. Stevens was not made available for comment.

Can you say "fallguy" boys and girls?

During a January interview, Frist agreed. Asked about the claim that the vaccine language was inserted after the conference members signed off on the bill, he replied: "To my knowledge, that is incorrect. It was my understanding, you'd have to sort of confirm, that the vaccine liability which had been signed off by leaders of the conference, signed off by the leadership in the United States Senate, signed off by the leadership of the House, it was my understanding throughout that that was part of that conference report."

Ooh, Gumby! So twisty and flexible!

But Keith Kennedy, who works for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., as staff director for the Senate Appropriations Committee, said at a seminar for reporters last month that the language was inserted by Frist and Hastert, R-Ill., after the conference committee ended its work.

"There should be no dispute. That was an absolute travesty," Kennedy said at a videotaped Washington, D.C., forum sponsored by the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

Red alert! Red alert! A spine! Ah, but we know those Mississippi Republicans are really borderline commies, right?

"It was added after the conference had concluded. It was added at the specific direction of the speaker of the House and the majority leader of the Senate. The conferees did not vote on it. It's a true travesty of the process."

After the conference committee broke up, a meeting was called in Hastert's office, Kennedy said. Also at the meeting, according to a congressional staffer, were Frist, Stevens and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

"They (committee staff members) were given the language and then it was put in the document," Kennedy said.

About 10 or 10:30 p.m., Democratic staff members were handed the language and told it was now in the bill, Obey said.

He took to the House floor in a rage. He called Frist and Hastert "a couple of musclemen in Congress who think they have a right to tell everybody else that they have to do their bidding."

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., also was critical of inserting the vaccine language after the conference committee had adjourned.

"It sucks," he told Congress Daily that night.

Now that's bipartisan! Not to mention highly professional language.

"What an insult to the legislative process," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a member of the conference committee. Byrd is considered the authority on legislative rules and tradition.

Oh, come on, you knew he was going to be in there. Plus it gives me one more chance to reiterate that Sen. Byrd will be getting no money or vote from me in his bid for re-election for his massive failure on the Alito vote.

Even though Byrd thinks it's an insult to the legislative process...

"[t]he practice of adding to a compromise bill worked out by bipartisan House-Senate conference committees, while highly unusual, is not thought to violate congressional rules."

Not thought by whom? Unnamed others who are not "the authority on legislative rules and tradition," apparently.

Frist has received $271,523 in campaign donations from the pharmaceutical and health products industry since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.

Snippity do dah...

Frist has long advocated liability protection for vaccine makers, and it was widely reported that he would attempt to attach the legislation to the Defense Appropriations bill because it is considered must-pass legislation.

Long advocated. Since 1989 perhaps?

Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said that, while the group favors liability protection, it did not take a position nor did it lobby on behalf of the law that passed.

Well, shoot, why would they have to lobby when Frist was bought and paid for already? Besides, with 2008 looming, I'm sure they'll have the chance to show their appreciation.

Via AmericaBlog.

UPDATE: Tim F. at Balloon Juice refreshes our memory about Cheney's feelings on the issue when the democracts worked the rule book fine print.

Posted by binky at February 9, 2006 04:47 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Corruption | Politics


Sweet post on an appalling event.

Posted by: Armand at February 9, 2006 08:26 PM | PERMALINK

Three comments:

1. This just goes to prove that Congressional Republicans aren't worth spit. They see no utility in being an actual check on executive authority, or to oversee what the executive may be doing, and (now) they don't even feel the need to obey the rules of Congress. These people can't be kicked out fast enough (not that anyone will lose their job with the gerrymandered-to-death districts that everyone has now).

2. The quote from ex-semi-honorable Senator Byrd was priceless. I thought he cared about the constitution, and process? What with the Alito vote (and now this), he won't get any support from me in this election cycle.

3. Frist's Presidential bid is dead on arrival. He is carrying far, far too much baggage to manage to effectively run. He might make a stab at it (his high profile will enable him to raise/extort money from Republican sources, so he'll be able to put a campaign together), but it's a waste of time. On the other hand, since I want to see the Republican party go down like the Hindenburg (only faster) so the grown ups can take control over what was once a respectible party, let him run.

Posted by: baltar at February 10, 2006 12:33 PM | PERMALINK
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