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MT: Revolving door will haunt Baucus re-election bid

By   /   December 17, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

CORPORATE REVOLVER: When health carriers needed a voice in reform talks, they sent in Elizabeth Fowler.

By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org

HELENA – The average Montanan probably doesn’t know Elizabeth Fowler.

Hers is not exactly a household name, but why should it be?

But Fowler, along with her resume, could serve as a potent weapon as political operatives look to take down Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in 2014.

Fowler serves at Johnson and Johnson, a global health policy lobbying firm based in Washington, D.C. She left President Obama’s administration earlier this month to grab the lobbying post.

Bouncing back and forth between the lobbying sector and government work isn’t a new trick for Fowler. That’s where Baucus comes in.

Baucus, up for re-election in 2014 after six terms in the Senate, chairs the
powerful Senate Finance Committee. He hired Fowler in 2001 to assist the
panel with health policy. Fowler held the position, annually grabbing six-figure incomes, until her 2005 exodus into the private sector.

Upon leaving Baucus’ committee, Fowler signed on with Wellpoint, the nation’s largest health insurance carrier, as vice president for public policy and external affairs. In essence, she led the company’s lobbying efforts.

In 2008, she returned to Baucus’ committee, again clutching the health policy mantle. Her return came at a critical time for the nation’s health system — an eager and energetic president-elect was set to address the nation’s health-care woes head-on.

Corporations wanted an active role in the discussions.

Fowler served as the mouthpiece for corporate interests in the run up to the March 2010 health-care reform passage, enraging hard-left politicos along the way. Reports link her to the death of the so-called public option, essentially a government-run health-care plan, a longtime reform favorite of the progressive left.

The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald opines that health-care reform, absent a public option, served as gift-wrapped manna from heaven for the health sector. “Whatever one’s views on Obamacare were and are: the bill’s mandate that everyone purchase the products of the private health insurance industry, unaccompanied by any public alternative, was a huge gift to that industry,” he wrote earlier this month.

FOR THE PEOPLE: Baucus still contends he works for Montanans.

Finished beating back the public option, Fowler joined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency primarily tasked with health reform implementation, as deputy director of the Office of Consumer Information and Oversight. The insurance executive who helped draft the law would oversee its implementation.

Eventually, she made her way deeper into Obama’s administration, taking a job as a special assistant to the president for health care and economic policy at the National Economic Council.

Of course, government work could only last so long. Earlier this month, she departed the Obama administration for Johnson and Johnson.

The heroine returned, spinning the revolving door just one more time.

She hasn’t transitioned without scorn, though. Marcy Wheeler over at Empty Wheel broke down Fowler’s career as of late.

“It’s a nice trick: send your VP to write a law mandating that the middle class buy s***y products like yours, then watch that VP move into the executive branch to ‘oversee’ the implementation of the law,” she fumed after Fowler joined HHS in 2012. “What could go wrong?!?!”

As Wheeler so aptly demonstrates, Fowler’s resume offers something detestable for nearly everyone along the political spectrum. Hard-left liberals and fanatical progressives abhor her role in killing the public option, which they saw as the premiere avenue to affordable health care and as a means of keeping despotic insurance carriers in check.

Her work history also suggests a cozy relationship between a powerful Senate Democrat and corporate interests, not a winning combination in these Occupy Wall Street times.

For conservatives, liberals and libertarians alike, Fowler’s many trips through that revolving door forward the perception — right or wrong — that lobbyists wield unequal influence inside the Beltway. Each of those political ideologies insists that the people should have the ear of government, not well-moneyed corporate goons.

The recently concluded contest for Montana’s other Senate seat will further multiply Baucus’ grief. Democratic incumbent Jon Tester repeatedly bashed Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, Montana’s lone congressman since 2001, over his friendliness with D.C. lobbyists.

During the course of that campaign, Tester operatives seized on a secretly recorded meeting in which Rehberg said he’s not at all bothered by the revolving door.

Here’s a definition of revolving door penned by the Tester staff:

On Capitol Hill, the “revolving door” is a term that describes former congressional staffers who become lobbyists and use their connections to advocate for special interests. Often these lobbyists go in and out of lobbying and congressional jobs.

Sound familiar?

Tester repeatedly bludgeoned Rehberg with the charges, but the words, if properly planted by whoever steps up to challenge Baucus next in two years, could also gash Montana’s senior senator.

Consider how easily a GOP operative could take Tester’s own rhetoric slamming Rehberg and apply them to Baucus in a vicious television or radio ad: “Folks know when they go to work for me, we tell them right off the bat, when you leave, if you go to work for a lobbyist that’s your decision whether or not you want to do it, you are not lobbying me and you aren’t going to be re-hired.”

Still, on his web page, Baucus asserts he knows who his bosses are.

“Max has never forgotten his roots — or the people he works for in Montana,” the senator writes in his biography.

Contact: [email protected] or @DustinHurst via Twitter.