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Morning Reading

Scott Jagow Aug 10, 2009

Good morning. Back from a couple days of R and R, which I’ll tell you a bit about shortly. Thanks to Paddy Hirsch for filling in. This morning, you might need a handkerchief for starters. Plus, Robert Reich alleges extortion involving the White House. And depositing a check using a camera?

At Real Clear Markets, Bill Frezza writes that Congress’s business model makes him want to cry. What he says is mostly stuff you probably already know, but the way he puts it together might make you want to cry too:

Congressional businesses are exempt from many of the accounting laws that normal businesses must obey. Congress is not obliged to balance its budget and is immune from going out of business. These factors make it possible to promise benefits that are popular with voters while leaving future generations to pay for them.

Congress also hands out money. Some of it is freshly printed, some of it is borrowed, and much of it is extracted from citizens and businesses in the form of taxes. Taxes are collected following complex and ever-changing rules made up by Congress. Money is given away to whomever Congress pleases. When opposing Congressmen disagree on which favored business, voting group, or activist cause should receive money, the disputes are often resolved by giving money to all of them.

Not teary-eyed yet? There’s more:

Some lobbyists quote prices to prospective customers who may be unfamiliar with accepted practices in Washington. The going rate to rent a Representative for the purpose of obtaining an earmark has been quoted by a prominent K Street lobbying firm at $10,000. The going rate for a Senator has been quoted at $20,000. This does not include fees and kickbacks to the lobbyist, which can be paid out of the earmark. Optimal results require paying one local Representative and both Senators as well as the chairman of the appropriations committee that processes the earmark.

Sharing the political views of rented Congressmen is not relevant when purchasing an earmark. Smart lobbyists often rent Congressmen in bipartisan pairs. This helps minimize scrutiny by Congressional ethics committees. Lobbyists provide training on how to bundle donations to avoid violating campaign finance laws that are written by their friends in Congress.

Oh, but it’s not just Congress. On his blog, Marketplace commentator Robert Reich laments the White House’s promise to Big Pharma that health care legislation will not include the government trying to force lower drug prices:

I want universal health insurance. And having had a front-row seat in 1994 when Big Pharma and the rest of the health-industry complex went to battle against it, I can tell you first hand how big and effective the onslaught can be. So I appreciate Big Pharma’s support this time around, and I like it that the industry is doing the reverse of what it did last time, and airing ads to persuade the public of the rightness of the White House’s effort.

But I also care about democracy, and the deal between Big Pharma and the White House frankly worries me. It’s bad enough when industry lobbyists extract concessions from members of Congress, which happens all the time. But when an industry gets secret concessions out of the White House in return for a promise to lend the industry’s support to a key piece of legislation, we’re in big trouble. That’s called extortion: An industry is using its capacity to threaten or prevent legislation as a means of altering that legislation for its own benefit. And it’s doing so at the highest reaches of our government, in the office of the President.

Elsewhere, NPR has assigned reporters to design frugal summer trips. Robert Smith’s assignment — an alternative to a fancy show. Instead of paying $484 to hit Broadway with his family, he opts for a drive-in theater in Pennsylvania, where the bill is $20 total:

“Good evening folks, and a hearty welcome to our drive-in theater. We’ve a wonderful evening’s entertainment lined up for you. One that will provide several hours of pleasurable relaxation and diversion for you and your family.”

Too late. My daughters are already asleep in the back seat. But that’s one of the beauties of a cheap thrill. If I had paid the $121 per seat for The Little Mermaid on Broadway, I’d be prying those cute eyes open right now. As it is, I can tilt the seat back and chill.

How about this for online banking innovation? The New York Times says this week, the bank USAA will start allowing iPhone customers to deposit checks by just taking a picture:

“We’re essentially taking an image of the check, and once you hit the send button, that image is going into our deposit-taking system as any other check would,” said Wayne Peacock, a USAA executive vice president.

Customers will not have to mail the check to the bank later; the deposit will be handled entirely electronically, and the bank suggests voiding the check and filing or discarding it. But to reduce the potential for fraud, only customers who are eligible for credit and have some type of insurance through USAA will be permitted to use the deposit feature.

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