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When legislators morph into lobbyists, people wonder

Saturday, January 31, 2004

The revolving door between the Capitol and the offices of high-priced lobbyists, a minor scandal in the past, has the potential of becoming a major scandal if U.S. Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., jumps from his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to a $1 million a year job as a spokesman for the pharmaceutical industry.
Tauzin was a key player behind the Medicare prescription bill passed by Congress (the one that will cost between $400 billion and $550 billion a year, depending on whose numbers are used). The bill will also prove to be a windfall for pharmaceutical companies.
An old friend
Even before he was advocating for the spending of billions of dollars for prescription coverage, Tauzin was a vociferous opponent of importation of lower-cost drugs from Canada. He liked to talk about people dying in Haiti after taking tainted black-market drugs, as if that had anything to do with Americans buying American-made drugs from Canadian pharmacists at Canadian prices (rather than buying those same drugs from U. S. pharmacists at U.S. prices).
Tauzin didn't see anything wrong with Canadians buying theirdrugs at lower prices. To him it was just part of the world economy in which U.S. pharmaceutical companies had to do what they had to do to make a buck -- or a few billion bucks.
Little wonder that Washington is abuzz with word that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America wants to hire Tauzin away from his $150,000 a year job as a representative of the people with a $1 million job as a representative of their industry.
Not only would the trade group be getting a well-connected congressional veteran, it would be sending a message to the other 434 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate that they too might one day hit the big time, if they just remember to be nice to Daddy Bigbucks.
And while Tauzin couldn't actively lobby his former colleagues for a year under House ethics rules, he'd be free to share his considerable insight into the legislative process any time. That alone would be worth a million dollars to the industry as it guards against any loose talk in Congress of scaling back the prescription bill, now that a White House estimate of its cost has jumped past $500 billion.
In Congress, they think big
Under current law, there are no impediments to Tauzin leaving Congress and going directly to work for an industry that found him to be a most solicitous legislator. Congressmen can go to jail for stealing small amounts of money or trading on their influence while they are in office, but if they are clever enough and patient enough to prostitute themselves while in Congress, but not collect until after they're out, no law is broken.
In a perfect world, a congressman who sold out would be shunned by his colleagues if he returned to their hallowed halls seeking base favors. But those days belong to another century. Bit by bit the line between lobbyist and legislators has been blurred, and if Tauzin jumps across that line for $1 million a year, more of his former colleagues will admire him and envy him than will criticize him.
Some congressmen may worry about damage done to the image of their institution. Others will be too busy anticipating the day when they will be getting theirs. Neither should be surprised at the diminishing trust Americans place in Congress specifically and government in general .