Tom Winter: Who’s in control, the lobbyists or the legislators?

Tom Winter, Democrat

The joke for newbie Montana state legislators is that if you can’t find a bathroom or a conference hall, just ask a lobbyist – they’re everywhere, and they know the Capitol better than anyone else. What’s true for the Capitol is also true for our government: Lobbyists know it better than we do. They use this knowledge to bend policy that is meant to work for Montanans to instead work for their clients in industry and business.

That is why it was so disconcerting to see just how much control lobbyists are exerting over what our state legislators do and say. Reports this week show a healthcare lobbyist – by definition bought and paid for by the industry – wrote two op-eds published in this newspaper. Only his name wasn’t on it. Instead, they were “authored” by two state legislators. Yes, this happens often. And no, that does not make it right.

Also within this last week, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction joined South Carolina and Wyoming’s Superintendents on a panel promoting public school privatization. Who would host such a panel for three elected officials that are supposed to be fighting for public schools? Notorious corporate and lobbyist-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), of course.

When people talk about “the establishment” in politics, this is what they really mean. Small groups of well-paid, well-connected lobbyists working with elected officials on policy that affects not only the companies they work for, but the people of this state. If it’s happening at this level in Helena, Montana in a building full of earnest, well-meaning citizen legislators – I can only imagine how more cynical places are managing.

We wonder why it is so hard to fundamentally change a healthcare system that places corporate profits over the health of real people. We have allowed a broken political system to be hijacked by endless amounts of corporate money and influence. If there was any question of the valuation of money in politics over good policy that benefits the citizenry, take a look at the stage for the next Democratic Presidential primary debate. You won’t see Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock – who made the central plank of his candidacy getting dark and corporate money out of our politics. But, you will see at least one self-financed billionaire. (Seriously, there could be two.)

The biggest debate of this election cycle so far has been which path to universal healthcare coverage is the best for the Democratic Party to champion. This debate, though, has gone from a fruitful and honest argument of different, parallel visions towards a fight constantly infiltrated by outside forces seeking to protect massive industry profits. The lobbyists don’t care about which of our plans towards universal coverage is best. Their corporate-backers are threatened by any real reform. Instead, they undermine honest debate and trot out half-measure replacements they know won’t pass, but keeps their bottom lines happy.

As someone in a Democratic primary election for Congress, so far the only other healthcare policy proposal introduced outside of my campaign is one of these half-measures – allowing those aged 55 and up to buy into Medicare. Which is ok for a policy that doesn’t tackle the root problem and will never pass. But, it offends me because it not only comes at the cost of real reform and is cynically aimed at a desirable voting demographic, but because my sister and I cannot afford to wait 25 years for affordable healthcare.

We should reserve a fair level of scorn for members of the Democratic Party that think calling the majority of their own party members and voters views “extreme” or “misguided” is the best path forward. But what is misguided, and what we all should agree upon, is the extreme control that lobbyists exert over our government.

This is why we must be suspicious of half-measures. This is why we must look at any candidate toeing the industry line and ask: “Why?” It can certainly be sincerely held policy belief, but I have often found that those arguing for small ideas have often had their larger ones ground down by politics as usual.

So support your state legislators. We work hard and we do our best in a flawed system. But also be deeply suspicious of anyone claiming that your belief that healthcare is a right is “extreme” or who says that bold change is “misguided”. They might have spent too much time with lobbyists.

State Rep. Tom Winter is a candidate for Montana’s at-large Congressional seat.