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Return Of The Shyster

In the course of following the health care debate, in which millions upon millions of dollars have been spent to persuade Democrats to tailor their legislation to the interests of various components of the health care industry, one thought may have occurred to you: Is Tony Coelho making any money off of this? Coelho, if you don't know, is an innovator at pushing the boundary between politics, special interests, and the mutual profit thereof. If these massive sums of health care influence money had passed through town without Coelho getting a taste, it would be, in a way, almost crushing -- like learning that the Victoria's Secret models held a sex party in the Clinton living room, but Bill spent the whole evening reading a book in his upstairs study.

But fear not. The Washington Post reports:

The Partnership to Improve Patient Care, for example, headed by former congressman Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), was formed by the drug industry in November 2008 to lobby against binding government effectiveness studies, which could be used to determine what insurance companies must cover.

The dream shall never die.

In 1994, Ruth Shalit wrote a terrific profile of Coelho. I've excerpted some chunks, but the whole thing is worth a read:

As a freshman member in 1979, Coelho made a name for himself by shoveling large quantities of special-interest money into the coffers of Democratic incumbents. His creed, summed up in a 1985 speech to a lobbying group: "Special interest is not a nasty word." "There was a touch of envy," allows former Representative Guy Vander Jagt, who headed up the Republican campaign committee during the '80s. "As a fund-raiser, he was ten times more effective than I was." Coelho squeezed money from his targets by making bald references to his party's power. "We're going to be the majority party for a long time," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "So it doesn't make good business sense to give to Republicans." Former top Coelho aide Martin Franks, now a vice president at cbs, recalls: "We looked at the list of the guys who were giving too much to the Republicans. And we basically gave them the come-to-Jesus message. `We know who you are. You've been cavorting with the devil. But understand something here. We're in power. And I suggest you deal with us. Or at least ... cover your tail.'" To his ethical critics, even among Democrats, Coelho had a simple retort: "It is basically a lot easier to raise money from pacs than it is from individuals," he informed The New York Times in 1983. ...

During his years as head of the dccc, Coelho aggressively marketed the once pro-labor Democratic Party as increasingly pro-business, often during candidate forums for corporate pac managers. The contradictions of policy or philosophy never slowed him down. During these forums--nicknamed meat markets or cattle calls--Coelho forced candidates to stand behind tables, each with a name card and a place to display his or her literature. pac managers flocked to the hot candidates and left the others stranded and mortified. "That didn't work out so well," recalls Tom Nides, chief of staff to U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and Coelho's pac director at the time.

Coelho searched for, and found, other ways to showcase his products, or Democratic candidates. In one lucrative fund-raising innovation, he went so far as to sell access to the Democratic leadership of the House. He invented the Speaker's Club, which granted lobbyists and their clients the ability to meet socially with the Speaker of the House and other top Democrats for $5,000 per year for individuals and $15,000 for pacs. A brochure about the club stated: "Members of the Speaker's Club serve as trusted, informal advisers to the Democratic members of Congress." Asked by The Washington Post in 1983 what the generous givers of the Speaker's Club received in return, Coelho candidly replied: "Access. Access. They meet with the leadership and with the chairmen of the committees. We sell ... the opportunity to be heard."

Cheerfully, Coelho made new friends for the party. In 1985, with tax reform looming, he fought to retain the most criticized of all special-interest tax breaks, those received by independent oil and gas drillers--both of whom liked the tax code the way it was. This led to the formation of one of Coelho's more eye-catching schemes: the Council for a Secure America, a union of Texas oilmen and New York Jewish leaders to protect the oil industry's tax breaks and build support for Israel. ... Alas, the council was denounced by Representative Dan Rostenkowski as a transparent fund-raising ploy, and Coelho was forced to disband it. ...

In 1985, for instance, Tip O'Neill publicly rebuked him for risking the integrity of the landmark tax-overhaul bill, which eventually was passed by Congress, in order to cultivate campaign contributions. On other occasions as well, Coelho found himself fettered by his ties to wealthy foes of reform legislation. In 1985 Senator David Boren of Oklahoma was advancing a proposal to put a modest limit on special-interest money in House and Senate elections. Coelho promised top pac managers that he personally would kill the Boren measure if it got out of the Senate. "I'm not going to let reformers scare me into thinking that I can't ask people for money," he declared to the Los Angeles Times. "I'm going to ask. I'm going to ask very passionately." ...

It turned out that Coelho had a few ethical problems of his own. He had burnished his lifestyle considerably upon being elected to Congress, accepting approximately $80,000 per year in honoraria and speaking fees. Coelho used the money to make extensive renovations to his Alexandria home, which he proudly referred to as "the house honoraria built." "I'm earning more money than I ever dreamed of making," he gloated to the Los Angeles Times in 1988. Friends would later speculate that Coelho's ethical troubles stemmed from simply spending too much time cadging contributions from fat cats. He was slowly coming to resemble his marks.