Archive for Friday, June 30, 2000

Reports of affair could taint Medicare drugs bill

June 30, 2000


— When they noisly embarked on their crusade to impeach Bill Clinton, it was inevitable Republicans would be burned by their own sexual scandals.

The CIA has a word: "Blowback," meaning you're caught at your own propaganda game.

Sure enough, since Clinton's Monica episode, extramarital misbehavior roared through the Republican leadership like a Yellowstone fire.

Let's see, there was then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, since divorced; his appointed heir Bob Livingston, R-La., who resigned; Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde (a "youthful indiscretion"); Clinton-baiter Rep. Dan Burton, who apologized to constituents.

Not to forget New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who covered up a relationship with his press secretary, then quit the Senate race against Hillary Clinton after a sizzling affair.

Now, the Clinton Curse strikes again.

Call it the Saga of the Congressman and the Lady Lobbyist.

More than your Washington scandal du jour, the tale is entangled in a House fight over how retirees and baby boomers will afford prescription drugs.

The congressman is Bill Thomas, R-Calif., 58, married, head of a powerful health subcommittee -- and hustling to become the next Ways and Means boss.

The lobbyist is Deborah Steelman, 45, a comely, hard-driving insider who makes $2 million a year representing such pharmaceutical giants as Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers, Squibb and Pfizer. She's married, but in the process of divorce.

Steelman, if George W. Bush wins, is touted for the Bush Cabinet to replace Donna Shalala.

Thomas and Steelman have been engaged for the past year in an "intensely personal relationship," according to the congressman's hometown newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian.

Without playing private eye, I don't know whether accusations of an illicit romance between the congressman and the lobbyist are true.

If they are, the conflict of interest smells like a garbage dump.

Two reasons to suspect reality:

First, Thomas' gutsy local paper reported the relationship after insistent rumors -- heard also on Capitol Hill -- launched a six-month investigation. The Californian said the pair travel together and spend hours alone in Thomas' office. It quotes confidantes of top Thomas aide Carol Abernathy saying she was distraught over the affair's potential damage.

Second, despite a flood of self-serving rhetoric by Thomas and Steelman, neither has uttered an outright denial.

Thomas churns out defensive statements: "In 20 years in Congress, I've never been near the conflict-of-interest dilemma." More fuzzily: "Any personal failures of commitment or responsibility to my wife, family or friends are just that, period."

Something is glaringly missing amid the congressman's cloud of euphemisms. He does not say: "I've had no affair with Mrs. Steelman. Never happened. It's a lie." He won't answer questions.

Steelman, too, has mastered the sleek press release: "The insinuations are repulsive. To suggest I could stoop to an 'inappropriate relationship' to achieve legislation is repugnant ..."

She also avoids saying flatly: "The story's fiction." Or the classic: "We're just friends."

Meanwhile, Thomas' wife, Sharon, fumes at reporters, "It's none of your business."

Well, is it?

Why should anyone care if a congressman strays from his marriage -- an event so sordidly commonplace, reportage would consume tons of newsprint? But a confluence of events gives the Thomas-Steelman allegation impact on American lives.

Republicans this week will struggle to shed the "Do-Nothing Congress" image by passing a medical-drug bill for the over-60 populace. This gizmo would let insurance companies sell policies for $35 to $40 a month to pay half of seniors' drugs up to $2,100 a year.

Their plan is largely political cover in the 2000 elections. The golden-years vote will be pivotal. Republicans want to throttle a generous package by Clinton and Democrats to have Medicare pay for seniors' drugs. That would mean price controls, which big medical companies despise.

The craftsman behind the Republican fig-leaf plan: Bill Thomas.

The winners, if it passes, would be medical giants -- including the umbrella Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Assn. -- for whom Debbie Steelman is a highly paid lobbyist.

Notably, Thomas' colleagues don't leap to his defense. Ho-hum, some shrug that the infidelity story won't slow his rise to Ways and Means chairman -- or Steelman's place in a Bush Cabinet. Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., says, "If true, there should be an ethical investigation."

But more urgently, suspicion about a Thomas-Steelman dalliance should stop cold the Republican prescription-drug plan. Why should a congressman's hormonal hijinks affect what a 70-year-old widow pays at the drug counter?

Ever since the GOP's pious pursuit of Monicagate, they've found that what goes around, comes around. By the way, Bill Thomas sternly called on Clinton to resign.

That's blowback.

- Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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