Recess spin on Medicare not reform

Medicare attracts headlines. Lobbying reform does not.

Or so this week’s message war seems to suggest.

Medicare attracts headlines. Lobbying reform does not.

Or so this week’s message war seems to suggest.

Republicans and Democrats are drawing clear battle lines for and against the Medicare prescription-drug benefit during this week’s Presidents Day recess, but the communications kits that leaders distributed to their individual members last week ignore a brewing standoff over changes to lobbying rules.

The absence illustrates a difficulty Republican leaders have encountered in trying to rally their members around a set of common reform principles, as well as a general lack of voter interest in lobbying reform throughout the country.

While Democrats in the House and Senate have rallied around a single set of reforms, Republicans in both chambers are splintered on the extent to which Congress should amend the laws governing member and staff interaction with lobbyists.

But Democrats are not attacking that impasse in their messages to voters. Instead, they are focusing on how “the culture of corruption” has affected drug prices and undermined the prescription-drug plan.

Republicans, meanwhile, are looking backward rather than forward in their own recess kits by highlighting GOP reforms from the mid-1990s that limited the influence of outside lobbyists.

Democrats went on the offensive this week, hosting more than 100 local events attacking the prescription-drug bill as “an overly complex and poorly implemented giveaway to HMOs and drug companies,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) distributed talking points on the drug plan and a slide presentation to her members last week as part of a larger Democratic initiative to capitalize on confusion surrounding the new program.

Democratic leaders are also using the recess week to tie this confusion to what they call the GOP culture of corruption. Despite that charge, they are not planning to tout the strength of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, a recently released lobbying-reform bill that has drawn the support of 40 senators and 160 Democratic members of the House. That bill is the only significant part of the Democratic leadership’s 2006 agenda to be introduced this year.

Since most voters consider Congress corrupt, polling on both sides of the aisle suggests that corruption must be tied to other issues that affect them, such as the high price of energy, prescription-drug costs or federal spending in general.

“They don’t necessarily see how it will affect their day-to-day lives,” said Matt Hogan, a Democratic pollster with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. “That’s why we’re trying to hammer home how that corruption affects those issues.”

Republican pollster David Winston said, “People are aware that something is going on, but there is not a sense of clarity around the issue.” He said voters see corruption as an issue affecting individual members, not something that will override their concerns about the economy or the war on terrorism.

GOP members are divided about what course to take to reform the current laws after a plan by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) met significant opposition from other members of the Republican Conference.

The GOP communications packet, which was assembled by Rep. Deborah Pryce’s (Ohio) Republican Conference office, contains two and a half pages of Republican-led ethics reforms going back to 1994, when the party took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

The packet does not include any suggestions from Republican leaders about what, if any, reforms the House should pass in the wake of various lobbying scandals that have implicated members on both sides of the aisle.

The packet does include 10 pages on the Medicare prescription-drug plans, including talking points on the controversial Part D benefits, instructions for hosting a constituent workshop and a sample op-ed piece from Pryce praising pharmacists for their help implementing the plan.

The communications kit also includes fact sheets on the economy, a “progress update” on the war in Iraq and a response sheet to frequently asked questions about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program.

The recess kit is part of a yearlong audition for Pryce, who avoided a challenge to her chairmanship earlier this year when members defeated a motion calling for other leadership elections besides the races for majority leader and policy chairman.

Many GOP House lawmakers anticipate another challenge to her post after the November elections — should she try to keep the job; her hire of a securities lobbyist earlier this month fueled speculation that she is considering a run for the chairmanship of the increasingly powerful Financial Services Committee if Republicans retain their majority.

Members have complained that Pryce does not make enough media appearances to be an effective voice for the party. She responded to those complaints by arguing that her job is to put other members in the spotlight, not just to promote herself, a charge that rankled the supporters of at least one of her predecessors.

“Debbie Pryce would be well-served to stop inventing criticisms of [former conference Chairman] J.C. Watts [R-Okla.] and concentrate on improving the favorables for congressional Republicans, which are currently in the low 40s,” said one former Watts staffer who no longer works in the House.

Long before those criticisms emerged in the press, Pryce and her staff began implementing a series of changes to the process of promoting a message. Her staff recently completed an update to the conference website, featuring podcasts of recent press events, and a comprehensive training manual titled “Getting the Job Done.”

The blue binder, which was completed and distributed at the end of January after more than two months in production, is a basic how-to manual for member offices, covering everything from writing a press release to organizing and running town-hall meetings. The playbook even has a section with directions for submitting editorials to a number of local and national newspapers and an introduction to blogging.