Friday, February 23, 2007

A Bribe by Any Other Name

Merck & Co., manufacturers of Gardasil, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, made a big public show this week of calling off their efforts to lobby various state legislatures, saying that their efforts were causing a backlash that might prevent the maximum number of girls and women from receiving the $400 treatment.

OK, so, no more “lobbying” then.

Though as many as 20 states are considering vaccination plans for females between ages 11 and 26, Texas Governor Rick Perry is the only one so far to mandate a jab for girls entering the sixth grade when he issued an executive order earlier this month.

I have to admit, that move surprised me a bit. While there seem to be clear advantages to early vaccination (there is some debate as to how necessary this vaccine is, but few debate that it is effective against some forms of HPV and that the vaccine must be administered before exposure), HPV is not a disease that can be transmitted casually, and Governor Perry (George W. Bush’s handpicked successor) is usually a darling of the religious right—a group that essentially opposes anything that could promote sexual health (as differentiated from baby-making). I instantly had my suspicions that Perry’s own brand of morality was about as deep as the thickness of his wallet.

Well, as reported by the AP, suspicions confirmed.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff met with key aides about a new vaccine to prevent cervical cancer on the same day its manufacturer donated money to his campaign, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

. . . .

A calendar for chief of staff Deirdre Delisi obtained under Texas' open records laws shows she met with the governor's budget director and three members of his office for an "HPV Vaccine for Children Briefing" on Oct. 16. That same day, Merck & Co.'s political action committee donated $5,000 to Perry and a total of $5,000 to eight state lawmakers.

And if that doesn’t stink enough, the article goes on to reveal:

Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff and Delisi's predecessor, lobbies for Merck. And the governor accepted a total of $6,000 from Merck during his re-election campaign, including $1,000 in December 2005.

You see, to me, that’s not lobbying. Lobbying is when a guy or gal with a point of view, or even, perish the thought, an agenda, walks into a government office and advocates strongly, with information (biased, perhaps. . . perhaps not) and maybe a nice brochure or PowerPoint deck.

When money changes hands, or lavish vacations or gifts (or hookers) are arranged, that’s not advocacy, that’s not the constitutionally guaranteed right to lobby for redress, that’s something else.

You could call it “influence peddling,” but I think I’ll call it bribery.

And this is perhaps one of the problems with the variety of attempts—mostly failed—at lobbying reform. Lobbying honestly just doesn’t sound that bad—I might even argue it sounds good, or, at least, necessary. It is part of what makes representative government work.

But what happened in Texas, or what has happened with so many other officials (elected and appointed), is not lobbying, and we should just stop calling it that. It is bribery—and bribery is clearly illegal, and should be dealt with as such.

There actually is a valid debate to be had about whether requiring Gardasil is in the best interests of individuals or the community at large, but the actions of both Merck and greedy, corrupt civil servants like Governor Perry make it increasingly difficult to examine the subject within those parameters.

Maybe a little bribery reform could clear the air.

(cross-posted to Daily Kos.)


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