With all the tough campaign reform talk, you'd think there would be more coverage of specific cases in which money appears to have purchased political influence.
Maybe that's because some of the most prominent campaign reform supporters receive donations designed to influence legislation.
A case in point is support for the "Silicone Breast Implant Research and Information Act," a bill that trial lawyers and plaintiffs in breast implant lawsuits have actively sought.1
Despite the bill's noble-sounding name (who could oppose disease research?), it is designed primarily to negate extensive previous medical research on silicone implants. Inconveniently for trial lawyers, that research has shown that implants are far safer than plaintiffs' attorneys in implant cases contend. Since implant litigation continues, and literally billions of dollars are being fought over, trial lawyers are desperate to find new research that agrees with their contention that silicone implants cause disease.
And they want taxpayers to pay for it.
The Silicone Breast Implant Research and Information Act mandates that federal tax funds be used to conduct or support new silicone implant research, among other requirements, some of which are already law. The House version of the bill would raise the implant issue to the Presidential level, requiring the establishment of a "President's Interagency Committee on Silicone Breast Implants."
This bill would force the White House, the Department of Defense, the Social Security Administration and other agencies to devote staff time to implant issues. The bill also mandates that scientists and female implant recipients be included on the panel, but breast cancer survivors (a group accounting for 20 percent of all implant recipients2 and the people who are most likely to have a medical cause for desiring implants), radiologists, plastic surgeons and implant manufacturers, all of whom have more than a passing familiarity with implant safety issues, are notably excluded from participation.
Clearly, the legislation is not designed to take a dispassionate, scholarly look at the facts about implant safety. It is merely an attempt to use the power of the federal government and the hard-earned funds of taxpayers to help trial lawyers get rich on implant cases.
Which brings us back to the trial lawyers, who, with potentially billions at stake, have actively contributed money to the sponsors of this bill. A whopping $550,000 - over half a million dollars - has been contributed to the sponsors of the House bill alone during the last two election cycles (1997-98 and 1998-99) by the political action committee of the American Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA). This funding, of course, does not include contributions to congressmen made directly by individual trial lawyers, nor does it include soft money contributions, which need not be made public.
Most tellingly, of the 63 Members of Congress who sponsored this legislation, 52, or 82 percent, received at least $1,000 from ATLA. 36, or 57 percent, received $10,000 or more.
Also interesting is the fact that, of the 11 House sponsors who received no money, 10 are Republican. This may well reflect ATLA's long-standing preference for the election of Democrats.
If a sponsoring Member of Congress is a Democrat (or, in the case of independent socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, caucuses with the Democrats), there is a 98 percent chance that he or she received at least $1,000 from the trial lawyer PAC and a 70 percent chance that he or she received $10,000 or more.
What's more, 30 of the 51 Democratic sponsors, or 58 percent, also sponsored Shays/Meehan, the main House of Representatives campaign finance reform bill. Of these, 28, or 93 percent, received at least $5,000 from the trial lawyer PAC while sponsoring the implant legislation that would benefit trial lawyers. 24 of those who sponsored both the trial lawyer bill and the campaign reform bill received over $10,000 from the trial lawyer PAC.
Could it be a coincidence? Recipients of campaign donations often say that their donors support their ideas; not the other way around.
To believe that is the situation in this case, however, requires believing the legislation would naturally attract substantial support without the intervention of well-heeled lobbyists and PACs. It most likely wouldn't.
Congress has, after all, already waded into the breast implant safety issue, attempting to settle the matter by ordering the Institute of Medicine to study the connection between implants and connective tissue diseases. In the summer of 1999, the Institute reported that implants cannot be shown to cause connective tissue diseases. This report echoed the results of many other independent scholarly studies, both public and private, conducted in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Denmark and elsewhere in Europe.3
The close financial relationship between the sponsors of legislation and those who benefit from it feeds a deep public cynicism about the way decisions are made in Washington. But more campaign finance laws aren't the answer. Americans can learn from the experiences of other nations. Germany, for instance, already has all the campaign finance laws any advocate of such laws could want, nonetheless, Germany is in the midst of a campaign finance scandal every bit as big as Watergate.
No, what we need is more openness, more and faster reporting
of campaign contributions, and more media coverage of the moneyed
interests pushing certain legislation. Then, and only then, will
politicians fear discovery if they do the bidding of donors -
and the public will have the knowledge necessary to vote out anyone
who responds to dollars over principle.
1 A report of Mr. Thomas F. Sheridan, Sheridan Consulting Group, to the U.S. Congress, pursuant to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, identified Sheridan as a lobbyist for the legislation and his client as the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee in the multi-district Silicone Breast Implant Products Liability Litigation, consolidated in the federal court in Birmingham, August 1999.
2 Amy Ridenour, "The Future of Breast Implant Litigation May Be a Bust for Trial Lawyers," National Policy Analysis #262, The National Center for Public Policy Research, September 1999, available at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA262.html.
3 See also Amy Ridenour, "Alar Redux: Hollywood Peddles Shaky Science Once Again," National Policy Analysis #202, The National Center for Public Policy Research, June 1999, available at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA202.html.
Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to email@example.com.