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06 January 2010

I've Moved!

Over the last couple of months, I've been in the process of creating a website that includes all of my work, not just my blog posts. So, if you would like to read further posts or stay updated with me and 'Can't Make a Sound', you can find everything here:


Thanks for following, and stay tuned for more.

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15 November 2009

Industry Money and the Vote for Health Care Reform


It's been sixty years its been since President Harry Truman became the first president to attempt to reform the health care system. President Clinton tried it when he was in office, and reforming health care is now one of Barack Obama's administration's most pressing issues.

But as always, there are outside forces lobbying to stop reform from affecting the way our current system works.

There are an estimated 35,000 lobbyists in Washington D.C. representing various interests and industries, and from 1998 to 2008, lobbyists and lawyers gave nearly $306 million to politicians in Washington.

It's a lot of money to be flying around the halls of Congress and funding campaigns, but it's trumped by another number:


That's the amount of money given to politicians by the health industry since 1998.

Dr. Lael Keiser, a professor at the University of Missouri's Department of Political Science, says lobby and industry involvement in Washington is nothing new.

"We certainly have a huge amount of interest groups and a lot of organizations that are involved. In something as big as health care, its huge. It affects so many different people that there are definitely lots of interests," Keiser said.

Politicians rarely voluntarily serve one term in Washington, and are thus consistently campaigning for their next election. They need money to do so, and look to companies, corporations, lobbyists, and interest groups to provide them with the cash they need. As large as the health industry is, there is a lot of money to go around. But how much of an effect does money from different corporations and interests have on the way a politician votes?

"As an elected official, if there's someone that has contributed a lot of money to a campaign, what you'll definitely do is listen to them," Keiser said.

The health industry is trying its hardest to be heard in the health care reform conversation.

Since January 2008, the pharmaceutical and health products industries spent $382 million to influence decisions in Washington, $145 million of it in the first three-quarters of 2009. From 1998 to 2008, the amount of money spent by all lobbyists more than doubled - from $1.4 billion to $3.3 billion last year.

"Its pretty clear that there are a lot more privileged groups than groups representing the average voter. And so when you're talking about health care, there's not as many groups representing the uninsured as there are groups representing health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, and those type of groups," Keiser said.

So, are private donors fighting you for your Senator or House members votes and what type of health care the public sees in the future? Keiser says it's hard to tell.

About 3.5 million Missourians are insured for health care by their employer, and coverage for a family runs about $12,000 a year. However, roughly 13 percent of Missourians have no form of health insurance, and the number of people insured fell from 73 percent to 64 percent from 2001 to 2008.

Its a consensus among Missouri politicians that something needs to be done to make the system less expensive, but no one can agree on how to do it.

In May, Senator Claire McCaskill took her position on the most controversial part of the bill: the government-run public option.

In a letter she wrote to chairmen Ted Kennedy and Max Baucus, she said: "A public option that sets the standard for quality, efficiency, and cost will create incentives for healthy competition that will serve the interests of all Americans."

In the past, she has voted in favor of measures to expand Medicare, a government-run program, and to provide health care coverage to more people, especially children.

Since 2005, she's received around $333,000 from the health industry, out of almost $9 million total in funds.

7th District Congressman Roy Blunt, a top contender for Missouri's open Senate seat in 2010, has a much different approach to health care reform, and his voting record shows it. He voted three times against expanding the State Childrens Health Insurance Plan, which would have covered up to 6 million more children.

In 2007, he voted against a measure that would require pharmaceutical companies to negotiate prices for Medicaid prescription drugs. He also voted in favor of a measure that would allow hospitals to deny a person non-emergency treatment if that person couldn't pay their Medicare co-pay.

When looking at Blunt's fundraising sources, some interesting numbers pop out.

In his 2007-08 fundraising cycle, Blunt received nearly $500,000 from the health industry, nearly a fifth of his $2.6 million in total funds.

His two largest individual industry donors came from the health professionals and insurance industries.

In the most recent fundraising cycle, Blunt ranks 17th out of the 535 members of Congress in health industry donations.

Republican Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson ranks second of Missouri politicians in the amount of money received from the health industry at just over $250,000 since 2005. However, she has broken party lines on several occasions to vote in favor of several health care reform-friendly bills.

Democrat Ike Skelton has received nearly $100,000 over the past five years from the health industry, and usually votes with other Democrats in favor of most reform bills. However, he was one of 39 Democrats who voted against the House health care bill on Saturday, and the only Missouri Democrat to do so.

So, at the end of the day, are the greenbacks donated by industries and lobbyists doing more talking than a politician's own constituents?

"You wont find politicians who will admit that, 'Oh yeah, if someone gave me money, Ill have to appease them.' They will never say that," Keiser said.

Dr. Keiser says it seems that all will be left up to the public to decide as to whether a company, corporation, or lobby has too much influence on a politician, because there really is no way to directly link money to votes.


For my full interview with Dr. Keiser, click here.

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23 September 2009

Fireworks at Opening of UN General Assembly

The United Nations General Assembly opened in New York Wednesday with eye-opening speeches from leaders of three of the world's most controversial nations. United States president Barack Obama set the meeting abuzz with his first speech to the UN.

The governing body made of 192 nations is likely to be one of Obama's largest focuses in dealing with the numerous foreign policy challenges he and his administration face. He also faces a daunting task in regaining the trust of the body after it was largely undermined under recent US presidencies, including George W. Bush's administration, which sidestepped the UN and its advice when it invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Obama's standout talking point was when he pitched the Assembly on a different America under his presidency. "We have re-engaged the United Nations," he said, going on to lay out the importance of working together, as well as the policy changes he has already implemented nine months into his first year as president.

He also called out nations, though not by name, that he said have showed "reflexive anti-Americanism" in dealing with some of the more serious issues brought to the Assembly in recent years.

This proved to be a fitting starting point for two speakers who followed Obama: Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, who spoke directly after Obama, and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Gadhafi (at left) made his first appearance at the annual meeting forty years into his reign as leader of Libya, but also as president of the African Union, which has been pressured recently to take control of several crises across the African continent.

He was allotted 15 minutes to speak, but went for 90 in a speech that urged the Security Council to adopt an African seat, but also strayed to hit on subjects ranging from the Taliban, to Iraq, an Israeli-Palestinian state, and the H1N1 virus. He also at one point said the Security Council should be renamed the "Terror Council" because of the power the veto nations have over the Council. He also tore up paper he represented as the UN Charter, which drew criticism from other leaders, including UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Despite his wide-ranging criticisms of the western world's "agenda" and his displeasure with the UN bodies in general, he did offer a glimmer of approval for Obama when he said he wished the new president would have a lengthy presidency.

Possibly the most important speech of the day, however, was made by Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his first major speech to the UN and first on US soil since his controversial election in June.

Ahmadinejad defended his presidency and called the election, rocked by massive protests after allegations of fraud, an homage to the people and "fully democratic." In classic Ahmadinejad fashion, he also delivered backhanded attacks on Israel and the United States, eventually prompting walkouts by several western diplomats, including a handful from the US and Canada.

The Security Council did break ground in dealing with one of its long-standing issues: dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions. The five nations with veto power - China, Russia, Britain, France, and the United States, with Germany also signing on - issued a statement threatening further sanctions should Iran not cooperate in talks regarding its nuclear program, the two former being important because of their prior reluctance to take a major stance on Iran's nuclear ambitions because of trade agreements.

The nations set an October 1 meeting deadline by which Iran can decide whether or not to attend a meeting to begin negotiations regarding its nuclear program. UK Foreign Minister David Miliband read the statement, threatening harsh sanctions should Iran not comply. Ahmadinejad has acknowledged he will consider letting his nuclear scientists meet with western scientists to discuss the state's nuclear situation.

While the meeting's importance has diminished in recent years and been mostly a place for disgruntled leaders to voice their opinions or other leaders to push their agendas, Wednesday's meeting laid out many of the glaring problems facing the UN both internally and on the international scale.

It also sets quite the stage for Thursday and Friday's G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, where the organization will again meet to tackle the issues facing the global economy and financial institutions.

The two meetings are major steps in the Obama Administration's intent to improve foreign relations and to better coordinate on a global level with other nations to attack the global economic crisis as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, and other flash-point areas such as Somalia and Myanmar, where organized multi-national efforts are either under way or being discussed to stabilize the respective state governments.

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