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Friday, December 8, 2006

Business as Usual

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Columnist Robert Novak, perhaps best known these days for his involvement in revealing the identity of Valerie Plame (Wilson) as a CIA operative, has uncovered another fetid example of "business as usual" in the halls of Congress. As he writes in his "Evans-Novak Political Report" for December 6, 2006, his latest exposé concerns, "a patent measure that looks like a technical change to an obscure section of the U.S. Code . . ., but it is an illustration of how Washington works at its worst."

The measure involves giving a solitary business, the Medicines Company, the ability to extend its patent retroactively. This hardly seems important. The firm's lawyers were one day too late in 2001 in filing the patent extension paperwork for its heart drug, AngioMax, so what? However, the error could end up costing the company $500 million in profits after the original patent expires in 2010. The extension, if granted, would allow the Medicines Company to monopolize the manufacture and sale of AngioMax until 2014 or 2015. Once the patent expires, whether earlier or later, other drug companies will be able to produce a cheaper, generic version.

One would think that the Medicines Company would sue its lawyers for their delinquency in filing the paperwork, but instead, it has hired high-priced Washington lobbyists to get Congress to grant them a retroactive, five-day extension of the deadline by adding it as a measure to another bill. As Novak writes, "But the blatant wheeling and dealing in order to get special treatment offers a rare window into the disturbing bipartisan self-dealing that goes on in Washignton [sic]."

The measure is being sponsored by two Republicans from Tennessee and two Democrats from Massachusetts, a wondrous bipartisan achievement in itself. On September 14, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property held a hearing on this measure, which one objector snidely named the "Sorry-I'm-Late-the-Dog-Ate-My-Homework Act." Testimony clearly revealed that the bill was designed to benefit only one company—and solely because this company had the good fortune of hiring the best lobbyists money could buy. Nevertheless, the measure was not blocked.

Presently, its backers want to attach the measure to a bill concerning designs for ship hulls, one authored by Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican. The lobbyists and sponsors have chosen Cornyn's bill because he is one of only a handful of senators that would likely object to the patent measure, and he would not want to hold up his bill just to stymie the passage of the one provision. Thus, it will probably pass into American law.

Except in terms of the dollar amounts involved, how is the Medicines Company's lawyers' error any different from Joe Citizen's failure to postmark his tax return before midnight on April 15? What right does he have to lobby Congress to erase his delinquency? None. He is required by law to pay whatever fine or interest that accrues due to his error. Why should this business, though it undoubtedly generates millions of dollars of commerce each year, be able to both rectify and profit from its own error?

But despite what our founding documents might say, there is no equality under the law in the United States of America. Using plenty of money, connections, and power as lubricants, a corporation can slip its preferences into the law to the exclusion of all others. This is nothing new. It has been happening in this country since its earliest days, but it is disheartening to see such pandering and peddling of influence being done so brazenly and matter-of-factly.

Such a thing is a fulfillment of the prophecies of Amos, which deal largely with matters of social injustice and corruption. The prophet rails against the wealthy and powerful "sell[ing] the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals" (Amos 2:6), and "afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate" (Amos 5:12). He paints a picture of a people groaning under the oppression and corruption of its own leaders, "notable persons in the chief nation" (Amos 6:1). The leadership lives luxuriously, seemingly unaware and unconcerned that the nation is disintegrating under them and that the common people are suffering. Why should they worry? They have everything they want, and no calamity can touch them.

Yet, they leave God out of the picture because they have forgotten Him. Seeing how they afflict and take advantage of their own people, He promises:

For behold, the LORD gives a command: He will break the great house into bits, and the little house into pieces. . . . "I will raise up a nation against you, O house of Israel," says the LORD God of hosts; "and they will afflict you from the entrance of Hamath to the Valley of the Arabah [from north to south]" (Amos 6:11, 14).

Notice that He promises to "break . . . the little house into pieces" too, which might seem unfair to the oppressed and afflicted who lived in those little houses. However, God is just, and He sees the hearts of all. Evidently, He discerns that the sins of both high and low, wealthy and poor, are merely matters of degree. Were the poor and downtrodden in the same positions as the wealthy and powerful, they would commit the same sins and crimes. As Isaiah puts it, the whole nation is sick—full of sin—from head to toe (Isaiah 1:5-6).

Would we do the same as the Medicines Company if we were in its place? Psalm 15 says that a person who will be allowed to dwell in God's holy hill "swears to his own hurt and does not change" (verse 4). This is a principle of godly character, applicable in this situation. In other words, a Christian takes his lumps, as it were, when he makes a mistake, even if it hurts. He does not try to work against or around the law to benefit himself at the expense of others. This is an attitude that imitates that of Jesus, who "when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously" (I Peter 2:23).

In Washington, it will unfortunately continue to be business as usual. What will it be in our house?