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Sen. Ben Nelson delivered a crucial vote to pass Obamacare into law in 2009, and now he is cashing out of the Senate to make money off the organizations that benefitted from the legislation.
Nelson's trip through the revolving door demonstrates an important truth about Washington's influence industry: The revolving door rewards lawmakers for further entangling business and government, whether through regulations, subsidies or mandates.
Nelson represented the conservative state of Nebraska for two terms in the U.S. Senate. Voting for Obamacare in 2009 and 2010 sealed Nelson's fate in the 2012 elections, and so he decided not to run again. Nelson's last day as a senator was Jan. 3, and on Jan. 22 he announced he had taken two jobs on K Street.
Agenda Global is a new, self-described public affairs and advocacy firm headquartered on Capitol Hill. Former lobbyist Craig Pattee, who had founded a firm with Nelson back in 1994, launched Agenda this past summer. Pattee says Agenda doesn't lobby per se but concentrates on "building grassroots coalitions" to pressure lawmakers to support the policies that help Agenda's clients. "The backroom deal is dead," he tells me.
Last week, Agenda announced it was hiring Nelson and former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer (Pattee's old boss) as "senior advisers."
"Both are recognized for leadership on agriculture and biotech matters," the firm boasted on its announcement. How did Nelson "lead" on ag and biotech? Mostly by pushing federal subsidies.
Nelson firmly backed the federal ethanol mandate, which effectively forces drivers to buy ethanol. Last year the American Coalition for Ethanol gave the retiring senator its highest honor, the Merle Anderson Award.
In Obamacare, Nelson also showed "leadership" on biotech. For one thing, when the biotech lobby supported the bill (with all its profitable subsidies and mandates) and the people of Nebraska opposed it, Nelson sided with the biotech lobby.
More specifically, Nelson helped stick a special favor for biotech into the legislation: He was among a dozen lawmakers who specifically pushed for 12 years of exclusivity (that is, generics are banned) for name-brand biotech drugs. Regular name-brand drugs get five years before generics are allowed.
Today, Agenda wants as clients the biotech and ag companies that benefitted from Nelson's policies. And now, thanks in part to Nelson, biotech and agribusiness firms are more dependent on government's good favor than before.
Pattee says he hopes Nelson will bring in biotech clients but adds that Nelson "doesn't have any interest in lobbying his former colleagues on issues like biotech." And Pattee paints his own aspirations in the ag sector not as corporate lobbying but as grassroots mobilization, or "getting farmers off the couch."
Nelson's second K Street job, CEO of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, might not even exist without Obamacare.
The NAIC is not an industry lobby. It is the trade group and lobbying association for state insurance regulators.
Obamacare mentions the NAIC 18 times. Again and again, the law requires the secretary of health and human services to consult the NAIC in developing federal health insurance standards. Some provisions of the law basically delegate regulatory power to the NAIC.
Now, with Ben Nelson on the payroll, the NAIC can be even more confident it will get its wishes. After all, Nelson put his neck on the line and cast decisive votes to pass the bill. It's not as if the Obama administration is going to blow off Nelson when he calls.
So you see how the NAIC benefits from having Ben Nelson, and you can also see how Ben Nelson benefits from having Obamacare. The NAIC wouldn't need or want Nelson's services as much had Congress killed the bill -- which is what Nelson's constituents mostly wanted. Alternatively, if the bill weren't loaded up with so many new rules for regulators -- for instance, rules on how much an insurer can base its premiums on age -- the NAIC wouldn't have so much influence or need a Washington liaison.
There's nothing extraordinary about Ben Nelson's career moves. In fact, he's downright modest compared with other participants in the Great Health Care Cashout. Democratic Reps. Bart Stupak and Earl Pomeroy, for instance, went to work as lobbyists for health care companies after Obamacare cost them their jobs. Many congressional aides who crafted the bill followed the same path.
Nelson's industry work at Agenda is not lobbying, by its precise definition. His work at a lobby group (the NAIC) is not for an industry. But Nelson is still profiting from government's increased role in the economy -- which is what he voted for.