Sign Up

An American Heroine

Will U.S. Representative Jo Ann Emerson bring a new spirit to Capitol Hill?

July 31, 2003

Will U.S. Representative Jo Ann Emerson bring a new spirit to Capitol Hill?

Few people around the world have high hopes for more enlightened policies springing from Washington — as long as that city is ruled by TOMs, or "tired old (white) men."

The list of these "leaders" includes such luminaries as Vice President Cheney, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Committee Chairmen such as Orrin Hatch of Utah in the U.S. Senate — and Bill Thomas of California in the House of Representatives.

They seem utterly determined to push the outer edges of fiscal and legislative responsibility. And they basically thrive on proposing courses of action that are viewed as intolerable, if not inane, policies and concepts in much of the rest of the world.

The favorite policies of these U.S. legislators include esoteric pursuits — such as further loosening gun control, spending for the military as if there is no tomorrow or hollowing out civil rights.

Amidst this rather depressing outlook comes a rare burst of good news. In a modern-day equivalent of the Boston Tea Party, the generally anti-modern U.S. House of Representatives passed an amazing bill in the waning days of July 2003.

Entitled the “Prescription Drug Price Reduction Act,” the bill would allow the re-importation to the United States of U.S.-made prescription drugs from a qualified list of foreign countries where those medicines are available cheaper than in the United States itself.

That kind of common sense, efficiency-oriented business practice is what the United States, quite literally, used to teach other countries. Especially since such parallel imports are easy to accomplish in the age if the Internet and e-commerce.

But apparently, the inherently beautiful logic of that concept is not meant to apply at home. The present U.S. system of paying for prescription drugs has created a lot of absurdities. For instance, some of the socially weakest U.S. consumers — the elderly — pay the highest prices for the medications they need.

What is so surprising about the bill's passing is that, given the operating rules of today's Washington, there's usually strong enough a lobby to prevent anything that is really in the public good. Which is why it was near impossible to bring this legislation up for a vote.

Mind you, what legislation comes before the U.S. House of Representatives these days is essentially dictated by a handful of powerful men.

For the most part, this cabal ensures that only its version of legislative acts makes it onto the agenda of the House. The opposition, even though strong, is practically prohibited from presenting its own alternatives for a vote.

As a result, many U.S. legislators — for all their supposed power — are essentially there to act as extras, to populate the chamber and issue sound bites.

Given all that, it becomes clear that it took a determined — even feisty — legislator to overcome the various hurdles that the Bush Administration, Congressional leaders and the very powerful pharmaceutical lobby put up to prevent the consideration of such legislation.

The name of that courageous American revolutionary is Jo Ann Emerson, a representative from Missouri. Stranger yet, she is a Republican member of the House.

She took it upon herself to overcome the ever more pronounced partisan blinders that have damaged the work of the U.S. Congress for years now. She had the courage to defy her own leadership in the House.

And she is single-handedly responsible for offering a rare moment of common sense legislation on a bipartisan basis that, at least for now, has kept the overly powerful business lobbies in effective check.

How did she accomplish all that? Well, a while ago, the House leaders — the TOMs — desperately needed her vote to pass a broader prescription drug bill for seniors in the United States.

The vote only passed with a one-vote majority. In exchange for her crucial support of that legislation, Ms. Emerson had her leaders guarantee her in writing (!) that she could bring her own reform bill up for a vote later.

It speaks volumes about the acrimony — and lessened relevance of giving one's word — in today's U.S. Congress that this guarantee had to come in writing.

Either way, absent the determination on the part of Representative Emerson to enable re-imports of drugs, the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress would never have had a chance to vote on that smart proposal.

True, the battle is not over yet. The U.S. Senate still needs to pass a similar bill and then President Bush — who has threatened a veto — has to sign it into law. And sure enough, the joint lobbying forces of the Bush Administration and the pharmaceutical industry are out in force to prevent Senate passage of the House bill.

The outcome of those efforts is still uncertain. Opponents of the House bill claim that the pharmaceutical industry cannot guarantee the safety of imported medicines, and that higher prices for prescriptions are needed in the United States to ensure future development. Ms. Emerson's bill could therefore end up on the pile of great legislative pipedreams.

Nevertheless, the passage of her bill is an early indicator of the waning of the TOM regime. Representative Emerson managed to assemble a coalition of lawmakers, including many younger ones, who were not willing to take all the old lobbying games any longer.

And she gave a lively expression to what might come to be seen as an era of new self-respect for members of Congress. Their appreciation by the public is at a historic low point. In order to earn back the trust of the citizens, lawmakers will need to break the overwhelming power of the lobbies.

These lawmakers will need to make sure that, while lobbies are part of the legislative game, they should not be its sole determining factor. Common sense and the public interest need to take a more prominent role once again.

Once that pivotal lesson is re-learned by all members of the U.S. Congress, then America's ship will be on a safer and wiser course.