The Hidden Opportunity In The Federal Shutdown

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS -- Over a year ago, I sent my fingerprints for a standard foreign background check to the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., along with a money order. Both promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. A personal survey of those around me suggested that this was standard operating procedure -- which is why I suspected that America wouldn't exactly implode if this kind of federal "service" level was formally kneecapped. Still, in shock there also lies opportunity.

Sure, a few politicians have announced that they would donate their salaries to charity during the federal government shutdown -- but only right before plunging their heads back into the trough of public cash. Meanwhile, Americans are entrenched in ideological squabbles and in the left-vs.-right dichotomy at a time when they should really be rising above these differences to fix the actual problem.

A couple of years ago, I walked by the window of the French National Assembly's gift shop here in Paris and spotted a children's art kit with "Kids' Parliament" emblazoned on the box. Not only did that strike me as redundant, but it represented an impressive level of self-awareness. Then I remembered that this is the country renowned for having beheaded any lawmaker who got too greedy off the backs of the people -- which probably tends to have a lingering effect on those in power.

Given this history, it's easy to understand why lobbying cash in French politics doesn't exactly flow freely. In cases where it does, it's done commensurately with the shadiness that it represents, with manila envelopes handed off under the table of some cafe -- and often ending up in a courtroom as a result. So it follows that the most whining one ever hears in France about the political influence of the wealthy has to do with perceived taxation "benefits" that apply to their corporations.

By contrast, the shameless influence-peddling that exists in the U.S. under the guise of one's right to "buy" politicians through lobbying is the main reason why President Obama's Affordable Care Act was bound to come into being in the first place. When the tilting of the playing field leads to such obvious imbalances, the backlash is often worse than what could have been if the system hadn't been corrupted in the first place.

When I lived in New York City, my health care premiums ran up to $750 per month for a single person, and that was in the absence of co-payments -- and with the occasional surprise $800 bill in my mailbox. The service was great, but no better than what I get in France for $140 per month, everything included (including dental). In France, the government, as a single-pay client, sets rates and costs, with reasonable and competitive top-up private plan options available to cover what national health care does not. In the U.S., the costs are set by the price of lining the pockets of politicians whom insurers lobby in order to gain favorable legislation -- and that's hardly "free-market."

The dirty little secret is that America is capable of drastically lowering health care costs for everyone without sacrificing quality -- if Congress could only get around to passing legislation to suck lobbying funds right out of the political system. Limit individual and corporate donations to politicians to $1,000 per election cycle for each candidate or political action committee. Impose strict campaign-finance laws cutting spending to a tenth. (U.S. candidates would still have larger campaign budgets than French and Canadian federal candidates.)

If insurance companies want benefits, they can compete for customers in the free market by offering competitive health-plan rates. If they want legislation that works in their favor, they can argue on the merits rather than corrupting the markets by throwing cash around Congress like they're on a spending spree in Amsterdam's red-light district.

But where would the impetus come from? How about from you, corporate America? How about one of you stepping forward during this crisis, showing some leadership and calling for draconian limits on congressional lobbying through joint legislation? Explain that you support unfettered free-market competition, and call on your competitors to meet you out back in that parking lot with sleeves rolled up, because that's how it's supposed to be done in America.

As always, the solution to everything lies in the free market. Maybe one of these days, America will actually have a real one. This crisis presents a golden opportunity for any true capitalist leader who has the integrity to stand up and fight for what they claim to believe.