Tricky Dick Gephardt

Earlier this week, former Democratic congressman Dick Gephardt penned an op-ed for the Huffington Post that attacked a key pillar of President Obama’s healthcare reform bill. What the online publication didn’t disclose is that Gephardt is a lobbyist representing the very corporate interests gunning to kill the program.

In the piece, Gephardt said he was concerned the program in question, an important Medicare cost-cutting panel called the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), was “unelected” and “unaccountable” and would “have devastating consequences for the seniors and disabled Americans who are Medicare’s beneficiaries.” These arguments are cut directly from the talking points of industry groups that pay Gephardt–like PhRMA, which is now engaged in a full-throated campaign to kill IPAB.

The arguments also happen to be inaccurate. In addition to his hand-wringing about the payment board’s unaccountability, Gephardt also makes the bizarre claim that IPAB will prevent delivery reforms in Obamacare from being implemented. In reality, the board’s recommendations can be overruled by Congress, and its members are subject to Senate confirmation. Moreover, many believe that IPAB represents the best hope of spreading the most effective pilot programs and delivery reforms included in the healthcare bill—much to the consternation of the industry status quo. (More on all these policy questions can be found in my latest piece for the Washington Monthly, which takes stock of IPAB and the various groups now scrambling to smother it, including a coalition of Democrats with heavy ties to the healthcare industry who are working to repeal the measure.)

All of this brings up some uncomfortable questions for the Huffington Post, which initially ran Gephardt’s article with the minimal (and mostly meaningless) disclosure that he is “CEO of Gephardt Government Affairs”: why would the Huffington Post run Gephardt’s op-ed? Why would it not disclose his status as a lobbyist (explicitly, as in, “Dick Gephardt is a lobbyist”)? Why would it not mention his vested financial interest in the very topic he is writing about? Why would it allow a lobbyist to use the publication as a conduit for industry propaganda?

Whatever the reasons, the Huffington Post has helped one of Washington’s smoothest operators score a public relations coup for his corporate clients—by helping them reach a quadrant of the left that normally wouldn’t give them the time of day.

Even in a town as full of mercenaries and shills as Washington, Dick Gephardt is a special case. Just a handful of years ago, the then-Congressman touted himself as a friend of unions and a universal healthcare crusader. During his failed 2004 presidential bid, he was a man who stood against “the status-quo apologists” and “the special interest lobbyists running amok.” Today, he’s at the helm of his very own lobbying firm, working for the likes of PhRMA, Goldman Sachs and the coal company Peabody Energy. Even when compared to his many peers who have made trips through the revolving door, the list of issues on which Gephardt has been paid to reverse his position is very long indeed.

As I pointed out in this 2009 profile Gephardt’s real value as a lobbyist is his ability to approach and solicit support from progressives in ways that big banks, the pharmaceutical industry or coal companies could not dream of doing on their own. Even if he fails to win over liberal constituencies, Gephardt’s agitating pays for itself by muddying the waters and sowing confusion in liberal ranks. This was what has made his sellout so complete: he is not simply putting a price tag on his ideals, he is selling the reputational capital he spent years accruing among progressives and using it to manipulate the people who have come to trust him. This is precisely what Gephardt is up to once again, this time by aiding the healthcare industry in its efforts to kill IPAB.

When we talk about lobbying, it is easy to forget that when someone like Gephardt signs up to represent a client his job is not simply to show up in Congressional offices or make pit stops at political fundraisers. His task is to try and shape the broader political conversation on an issue, and this means trying to get quotes and op-eds into newspapers, making appearances on cable news, and coordinating and participating in roundtables and conferences. The less information is provided about Gephardt’s actual stake in the issue at hand, the better for his clients. That way the lobbyist seems more like a concerned elder statesman and Democratic loyalist than the hired gun he is.

After I contacted the Huffington Post yesterday, Gephardt’s op-ed was amended with an editor’s note saying he “has clients in the healthcare industry.” A link was also provided to his firm’s website, where “highlighted” clients are listed. Sorry guys, but that’s just not nearly good enough. Your readers deserve to know that Gephardt is a lobbyist and that he is paid to lobby against the specific issue he is writing about. Giving people a link to a site that lists PhRMA as a client does not in any way explain that PhRMA is a leading opponent of IPAB, and that we are in the midst of a highly organized campaign by groups like PhRMA to repeal IPAB.

It is a pity the Huffington Post is allowing itself to be a tool for K Street, making its job all that much easier. Scanning the comments below the piece, it’s clear that Gephardt’s muddying of the waters is working, primarily, I would guess, because those readers have not been informed of his vested financial interest in the program’s demise. It’s even more of a pity when you consider that the Huffington Post’s reporters have produced some of the finest pieces about lobbying and influence in Washington. I asked the Huffington Post for an explanation of why the editors posted the piece and whether they would take it down given the facts I’ve listed above. I’ve yet to hear back from on those questions, and will update you if and when I do.

Sebastian Jones

Sebastian Jones is an editor at the Washington Monthly.