In her first year as chairman of the Financial Services & General Government Appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia) seems to be, whether intentionally or not, letting lobbyists run Washington.
Sen. Capito’s appropriations bill was introduced in November without a modicum of transparency. Capito did not entertain any of the standard operating procedures — there was no debate, open hearings, or even a roll call vote. As a result, crony provisions easily slipped in, likely without the full knowledge of everyone on the subcommittee.
Perhaps the most egregious giveaway came in the report language, where the subcommittee criticized the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) plan to stand up for consumer choice and existing law when it comes to competition in the contact lens and eyeglass market.
The problem is that, despite a 2003 law known as “the Contact Lens Rule” mandating it, around 30 percent of American consumers are still not receiving copies of their prescriptions from eye examiners, preventing them from going to third-party sellers to purchase lenses. Since many eye examiners sell what they prescribe — optometrists regularly make as much as 70 percent of their profits from selling contact lenses and glasses — they have a clear incentive to hold back Rx forms.
The FTC spent a full year analyzing the 2003 law and the problems associated with enforcing. Eventually the commission determined the best way to increase examiner compliance is to have patients sign a simple form indicating that they received their eye prescription.
While this commonsense fix would do wonders for free market competition, it would clearly not work out well for the contact lens manufacturers, which prefer a more captive audience to retain their inflated prices. Companies like Johnson & Johnson Vision, which controls approximately 40 percent of the contact lens market, petitioned tirelessly against this modest rule change. The reason is obvious: any roadblock to the current protectionist current set-up, which allows the company to provide incentives to eye doctors so they prescribe brand-specific Johnson & Johnson lenses, would be bad for its bottom line.
Apparently Sen. Capito was swayed by Johnson & Johnson’s lobbying tactics, but her counterpart in the House, Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), was not. He strongly agreed with the FTC’s conclusion that amending the Contact Lens Rule would be a victory for consumers.
After the House Appropriations Committee released its version of the bill on June 28, Rep. Graves’ Financial Services & General Government subcommittee then started deliberating the next day in a public markup. It wasn’t until this open and transparent process concluded two weeks later that the Appropriations Committee voted on the bill, which included language encouraging the FTC to move forward with its plan to strengthen enforcement mechanisms.
Compare the FTC’s one-year review of the Contact Lens Rule and the House’s careful consideration of its bill to Sen. Capito’s hasty process. This embarrassing case of Washington theatrics involved Appropriations Chair Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss) announcing his intent to release a chairman’s mark on November 16 and then a bill and report language with Sen. Capito’s name on it recklessly coming out — without a vote or public debate — just four days later.
Sen. Capito seems to be in denial regarding her hasty and shady actions, even going so far as to say that “this has been a careful and deliberative process.” Give me a break. Until Washington makes a habit of reading legislation in full and properly discussing everything leaders propose in an open setting, special interests will continue to make gains at the expense of the American people.
Hopefully, Sen. Capito will work to ensure egregious transparency issues like this don’t happen again and fix her flawed bill for the sake of Americans who rely on glasses and contacts.
Drew Johnson Drew Johnson is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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