Howard Dean proved last week at Rep. Jim Moran’s health care town hall meeting that even a veteran Washington politician can level with people once in a while. The former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential aspirant was a practicing physician before he got into politics, so perhaps we should not be surprised by his explanation for why medical malpractice caps [i.e. tort reform] is not in Obamacare: “The reason tort reform is not in the bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everybody else they were taking on. And that’s the plain and simple truth.” Put otherwise, trial lawyers have effectively bought themselves veto power.

In the ranking by OpenSecrets.org of campaign contributions by the top 100 special interests during the past 20 years, the American Association for Justice (AAJ) – formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America – ranks sixth overall. The AAJ is the trial lawyers’ Washington lobbying group, and 90 percent of its $30.7 million in contributions since 1989 went to Democrats. At the other end of this pay-to-play process in the nation’s capitol, AAJ has spent nearly $14 million lobbying Congress just since Democrats won control of both chambers, including $2.3 million thus far this year.
 
The Democratic focus of the plaintiffs bar is even more obvious from campaign contributions of National Journal’s top 15 class-action trial attorney firms. As the Examiner’s David Freddoso and Kevin Mooney reported last week, those firms have contributed in 2009 more than $636,000, 99 percent of which went to Democrats. And employees of those firms have given more than $236,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces an uphill re-election battle, but the top trial lawyers firms are right there for him, with contributions totaling some $54,000 to date.
 
As governors like Texas’ Rick Perry and Mississippi’s Haley Barbour have demonstrated in recent years, capping medical malpractice suits can save billions of dollars by lowering the cost of insurance for providers and increasing access to quality care for patients. Without such caps, trial lawyers stand to continue raking in millions of dollars in fees by bringing suspect suits. And, as the above campaign contribution data show, it’s easy to see where many of those dollars end up. With such a lucrative quid pro quo, Democrats in the White House and Congress aren’t ever likely to do anything to cross this special interest.