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Part 2: Lee Fang on Koch Brothers’ Demand for Obamacare Repeal & Lobbyists Flourishing Under Trump

Web ExclusiveJune 29, 2017
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In Part 2 of our interview with Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept covering the intersection of money and politics, he describes how the Koch brothers have poured dark money into groups that are demanding the repeal of Obamacare despite public opposition to Trumpcare, and his recent article, Prominent Democratic Fundraisers Realign to Lobby for Trump’s Agenda.

Watch Part 1: Trump Picks DAPL Lobbyist to Oversee EPA Water Safety in Same Week He Rolls Back Water Safeguards

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept covering the intersection of money and politics. His recent article, “EPA’s New Water Safety Official is a Lobbyist with Deep Ties to the Dakota Access Pipeline.” And he also has written another recent piece, “Prominent Democratic Fundraisers Realign to Lobby for Trump’s Agenda.”

Lee, in Part 1 of this conversation, we talked to you about Dennis Forsgren and his links to both the Dakota Access pipeline and to be deputy head of the EPA. Now we want to turn to the current debate in Washington around the healthcare act. Can you talk about your tracking of the money and how that influences how senators are—what position they’re taking on the Republican bill?

LEE FANG: Well, you know, if you look at kind of—there are two big forces driving this debate. One, you know, you have the Koch network, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly through dark money efforts since the 2010 midterms to elect much of the Republican Congress. And one of the big demands from the Koch network is to repeal Obamacare. And even in these advertisements that they sponsored during the elections, they’ve made that, you know, a top priority and a top appeal to voters.

At the same time, you know, the Affordable Care Act has a number of specialized industry taxes. You know, there’s a special medical device tax, there’s a health insurance industry fee and a few others. And for affected healthcare industries that would like to see those taxes repealed, they are part of the forces motivating this debate. And if you look at both the House and Senate healthcare bills, it’s not a 100 percent repeal, but they do repeal 100 percent, or nearly 100 percent, of the taxes or delay them.

So, you know, you have these kind of very ideological billionaires on one side, you have these very committed industry lobbyists on the other, both of which are motivating a big part of this debate. And, you know, I should note that recent disclosures show the top-performing lobbyists, fundraisers for congressional Republicans include Blue Cross Blue Shield lobbyists. So, you know, clearly, they’re involved in the debate as it’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain further what you mean and the significance of this with Blue Cross Blue Shield?

LEE FANG: Well, you know, there are tens of billions of dollars, over a 10-year period, of a special kind of excise tax administered to the large health insurance companies that are involved in the Affordable Care Act, that participate in the exchanges. You know, Obamacare is a package of kind of both subsidies to these insurance companies, but, at the same time, a specialized tax on their profits. At the same time, there’s also a special deduction that’s repealed for health insurance executive compensation. So, you know, for all of these specialized taxes, in addition to a medical device one, health insurance companies don’t want to see any of these taxes. They do like the subsidies, but they would love to see these taxes repealed. And if you look at—for the publicly traded health insurance companies, if you listen to their investor conference calls and their annual investor reports, they say it’s a big priority. They’ve told their shareholders, if these taxes are repealed, they can return more money to shareholders, that they think their stock price will improve.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Lee Fang, I want to turn now to another recent piece that you wrote, “Prominent Democratic Fundraisers Realign to Lobby for Trump’s Agenda.” So, could you tell us a little bit about who some of the Democratic fundraisers are who are involved now in pushing Trump’s agenda? And what are some of the key issues that they’re involved in?

LEE FANG: Well, if you look at the highest-performing fundraisers, the bundlers for the Democratic National Committee, for the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 cycle, these are very prominent insiders. You know, these are folks who—you know, they previously served as officials in the Clinton administration from the '90s or, you know, top staffers for the Senate Finance Committee or for Nancy Pelosi. They've now gone through the revolving door: They’re corporate lobbyists. They have a number of corporate clients. And, you know, traditionally, we see these types of lobbyists raising huge amounts of money to help politicians and then using that kind of access to push their clients’ concerns onto those politicians.

Well, you know, a lot of these fundraisers, these Democratic fundraisers, obviously helped out with the Democratic ticket in 2016. But now that Trump won a huge upset victory, they’ve kind of shifted allegiances in some way. You know, if you look at their public profiles on their Twitter, they’re still tweeting about Hillary Clinton, about the resistance, about fighting Trump. But if you look at what they’re actually doing, they’re cashing out on the Trump deregulatory bonanza. You know, Trump is moving aggressively on any number of areas to roll back consumer and health regulations. Almost every agency is involved in some manner in pushing this agenda.

So, for the fight on repealing the very strong net neutrality rules that were passed by the Obama administration in 2015, you know, reclassifying broadband services under Title II of the Communications Act as essentially a utility and then creating net neutrality rules, which basically say that internet service providers can’t discriminate based on content—you know, you should be able to listen to Democracy Now! or read The Intercept at basically the same speed as when you’re accessing The New York Times, for example—there’s a big fight to repeal those rules. Chairman Pai, the appointee from the Trump administration, has moved very swiftly to roll back those regulations. And now we see in the lobbying disclosure filings a lot of these Democratic lobbyists, who had, you know, pushed for Hillary Clinton, now helping the Trump administration in this repeal effort—a large number of these folks. And like I mentioned, some of the most prominent Democratic fundraisers in the entire Democratic Party are now quietly involved in this effort. Why? Because Comcast, AT&T, the NCTA, these big telecom interests, are paying big bucks for any lobbyists who can help them out on this regard.

And, you know, this lobbying is, like I mentioned, quiet, but there are many different factors. You know, there’s lobbyists who reach out to third-party groups, to civil rights groups and, you know, different nonprofits, to encourage them to speak out in support of these efforts. There’s an effort to kind of quiet Democratic opposition so they don’t fight too hard on these corporate issues. There’s an effort to file letters to regulators and say, you know, they support these priorities. So, you know, a lot of this lobbying isn’t particularly public. It’s not well known. But it’s happening, and there’s a lot of people making money from the Trump agenda.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, could you say, Lee Fang—speak about specific prominent Democratic lobbyists who are now involved in pushing certain aspects of Trump’s agenda. You mention in your piece Heather Podesta, Richard Sullivan, Steve Elmendorf, among others. Could you say who they are and what exactly they’re doing now?

LEE FANG: Right. So, you know, someone like Steven Elmendorf, very prominent Democratic fundraiser, you know, he was—you know, he’s very famous in D.C. He raises huge amounts of money for the Democratic Party—the entire Senate Democratic Caucus kind of relies on him for money—raises money also for many House Democrats, and, obviously, advised Hillary Clinton during her first political run and was one of her highest-performing fundraisers in 2016. You know, he’s a former congressional aide, I believe, for former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. And he’s very prominent in LGBT issues. He helps fundraise for those causes. But he’s also a corporate lobbyist, you know. He’s involved in the net neutrality fight. Him and Heather Podesta, who’s the ex-wife of Tony Podesta, another very prominent fundraiser, you know, the brother of the Hillary Clinton campaign chairman, Tony—John Podesta. Both of these individuals, Heather Podesta and Steve Elmendorf, are involved in many of these regulatory fights.

Another one, in addition to net neutrality, is the fiduciary rule. This is a very important consumer safeguard, passed by the Obama administration after a very—you know, a very bitter fight. You know, he had to try two times to get this passed. This is basically a rule that says, you know, if I’m a regular retiree, someone who’s planning for retirement, and I go to my financial adviser, and my financial adviser is not acting in my best interest—perhaps this financial adviser is steering me to mutual funds or other retirement funds and then collecting a commission secretly, and maybe these mutual funds aren’t in my best interest, but, you know—and, currently, there are no rules that say that your financial adviser has to act in your self-interest. They can basically scam you and then, you know, push you towards mutual funds that then give them a kickback. This is kind of a ridiculous system that wastes billions of dollars, that actually screws over a lot of folks planning for their retirement by putting them in plans that are incredibly inappropriate or laden with high fees. And so, the Obama administration fiduciary rule essentially says that every financial adviser has to act in the best interest of their client. It’s pretty simple. But, obviously, the financial retirement industry, the financial services industry, hates this rule. They’ve spent huge amounts of money lobbying against it. But here we have folks like Podesta and Elmendorf paid by the big financial advising firms to help repeal this rule. And what the Trump administration has done so far, they’ve asked for an administrative delay in the implementation. This rule was supposed to take effect this spring, and so it’s been delayed. And we believe that they will use either the Labor Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission to repromulgate the rule and essentially water it down or repeal it entirely.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the rule would do, why it is so important for communication, for the internet, all over the world.

LEE FANG: Well, for net neutrality, this is kind of a general principle that has guided the internet since its birth. This basically says that, you know, if you’re surfing the web, every website kind of—the speed at which you connect to it is essentially the same. This promotes innovation. This promotes the freedom of ideas, because, you know, whether you’re going to kind of a large incumbent provider’s website or news website, you have equal access to that, to, you know, insurgent blogs or new web services or startups. Everyone has an equal playing field. But what the big internet service providers would like, they would like to create a two-tiered system that, essentially, if you’re surfing on AT&T, you can access AT&T websites much faster, or potentially block some of their competitors or simply slow down those internet services. So, it actually slowly—they would like to see a system that slowly closes the internet to a small universe of corporate-controlled, of ISP-controlled websites and services. And we’ve seen Verizon and AT&T move in that direction, propose certain services that mimic those type of problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Fang is an investigative journalist with The Intercept. And you can find what Lee Fang found at The Intercept.

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