If you suspect that lobbyists and wealthy campaign donors run Capitol Hill like a puppet theater, Nation on the Take by investigative journalists Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman will rob you of any hope that you’re wrong. The book is a dynamic, fact-packed course in how money—in massive amounts since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the advent of “dark money” from tax-exempt groups—pollutes the legislative process. It’s a tidal wave of information demonstrating with crisp prose and clear graphics how well-funded trade and industry groups can prevent even the most obvious legislation for the public good—in banking and finance; energy development; or the pharmaceutical, chemical, food and beverage industries—from becoming law.
This is familiar terrain for Potter, a native Tennessean whose previous book, Deadly Spin, exposed the treacherous lobbying and PR practices of the insurance industry, tricks he learned when he was in charge of corporate communications at CIGNA. Potter—who grew up in Kingsport, attended UT-Knoxville, and began his career as a journalist at the old Memphis Press-Scimitar—was partly inspired to leave CIGNA and turn whistle-blower by a visit to a health fair for the uninsured held at the fairgrounds near his parents’ East Tennessee home. Dentists were pulling teeth and surgeons were cutting out skin cancers in animal stalls converted to patient rooms, with long lines of people waiting to be treated.
In Nation on the Take, Potter and Penniman, executive director of Issue One, collect the work of other journalists, studies by nonprofit think tanks and watch-dog organizations, and stories of average people hurt by the new dynamic to support their premise that “our government has become coin-operated.”
A chapter called “Drugged” begins, “Bill and Faith Wildrick have never heard of Billy Tauzin, but they’re paying dearly for Tauzin’s tireless work for the pharmaceutical industry.” Bill and his insurance company had to pay a thousand dollars a day for a pill called Sovaldi to treat Hepatits C; the authors cite a study by Clinical Infectious Diseases that it “likely costs no more than $136 to make a twelve-week course of Sovaldi.” In India, the government-negotiated price for Sovaldi is $10 a pill, they write, because “[o]ther countries have come up with frameworks to make drugs affordable for people, whereas in the U.S. it has always been a case of what the market will bear.”
The same chapter tells the story of Billy Tauzin, who chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the Food and Drug Administration, from 2001 to 2004. “While he held that chairmanship, drug companies and insurance and health professionals contributed nearly $1 million to Tauzin’s congressional campaigns,” the authors write, citing the Center for Responsive Politics. During Tauzin’s tenure in the House, he was a key player in the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement Act, which, the authors say, “would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit while padding drug companies’ bottom lines.” Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, who voted against it, said, “The pharmaceutical lobbyists wrote the bill.”
Tauzin’s salary leapt to $2 million when he subsequently became president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. The organization spent $26 million lobbying during the 2009 debate over the Affordable Care Act, part of the industry’s collective $275 million investment in lobbying that year.
The journalists provide similar behind-the-scenes views of thwarted attempts to reform Wall Street; limit the toxic effects of mercury, formaldehyde and arsenic; or improve the quality of school lunches. There are fox-in-the-henhouse stories about the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that make you question whether you understand what the word “protection” means.
Naturally, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which unleashed super PACS, is included among the causes of the general belittling of the voice of average voters, as is the advent of “dark money” from tax-exempt groups that don’t have to disclose sources of their funds. The sheer amount of money at play in elections now forces members of Congress to spend huge chunks of their time fund-raising instead of hearing from constituents and considering legislation.
Nation on the Take also deploys stunningly blunt remarks from a range of sources about the crisis in government. Of the current intensive fund-raising by legislators, Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes said, “It’s appalling, it’s disgusting, it’s wasteful, and it opens the possibility of conflicts of interest and corruption.” Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said “plain conservative Republican” legislators live in fear of a Koch brothers candidate entering a primary. “And the next thing you know, you’re all done. And it’s not the merits of their ideas, it is not the appeal of their personalities—it is the raw political weight of Citizens United money.” David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan, wrote, “Money dominates politics, and as a result we have neither capitalism nor democracy.”
Nation on the Take makes the case that the average citizen is essentially disenfranchised in this new environment, but the authors say a recovery “is technically remarkably simple” and could be done in a day “with a single piece of legislation.” In a chapter called “It’s Fixable,” Potter and Penniman prescribe a program to tweak the tax code, fix the campaign-finance system, add transparency through data-sharing, and regulate lobbying. As some people say about praying, it can’t hurt and it might help.
Peggy Burch was books editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis for ten years, and she also worked as a deputy metro editor and Arts & Entertainment editor for the newspaper. She is a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and holds a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Mississippi.