Stories I’d like to see

Finding Obamacare's authors, assessing J&J's CEO culpability, and grading Chris Christie

In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on

1. Finding the folks who wrote Obamacare:

As I report a story I am writing about Obamacare, it’s become clear to me that — as we are already seeing with the controversy over people getting their insurance plans dropped — there are all kinds of issues related to provisions in the massive law that are bound to get lots more attention once the website is working. A few weeks ago in this column, for example, I mentioned the as-yet-little-noticed high penalties that smokers will have to pay.

As with the smoking penalty, many of these issues are related to narrow provisions that are hard to spot in a 906-page law. But as someone who has now read those 906 pages I can also report that, in addition to the substantive issues likely to become bigger deals as the law is implemented, there are also potholes soon to come because the law is filled with inconsistencies, gaps, and just plain wording errors. More generally, even for legal writing, it’s badly constructed and seems written to torment even someone who is used to reading legislation.

With that in mind, I recently asked a senior Senate staff person who was heavily involved in designing the law who the person or persons who actually wrote it are, and how I might track them down for an interview. His answer: “Senate Legislative Counsel. They don’t talk to anyone.”

Actually, it’s called the Senate Office of the Legislative Counsel. And here’s how it describes itself on its website:

The Office of the Legislative Counsel provides legislative drafting services for the Committees and Members of the United States Senate. The Office is strictly nonpartisan and refrains from formulating policy. Legislative drafters strive to turn every request into clear, concise, and legally effective legislative language.

Members and staff of the Senate can rest assured that communication with the Office is always confidential. The Office has a long history of providing unbiased services to both majority and minority parties using the utmost discretion.

Any Senator or staff member of the Senate may request assistance from the Office. The Office does not interact with members of the public, except indirectly through their Congressional representatives.

There’s also a House version of the same office, whose website declares that it, too, is off-limits to the press and public.

Who are these people? Is their work as bad as my read of the Affordable Care Act suggests? Or are they the victims of the heavily-lobbied, needle-threading material that members of Congress and their staffs feed them? (That still wouldn’t seem to excuse how badly they write, but who knows?)

Some lawyers who labor in public service anonymously — Supreme Court clerks in particular — go on to great things. What about this crew? Are they stuck in dreary career-long jobs unlikely to attract the best and brightest? Or does bill-writing behind the scenes offer some kind of little-noticed short-term stepping stone?

A great Washington Post, Politico, or American Lawyer story hiding in plain sight.

2. Where was the chief executive officer when Johnson & Johnson broke the law?

Last week the Justice Department announced that, as this New York Times report put it, “Johnson & Johnson has agreed to pay more than $2.2 billion in criminal and civil fines to settle accusations that it improperly promoted the antipsychotic drug Risperdal to older adults, children and people with developmental disabilities.”

The settlement included the company agreeing to plead guilty to a criminal misdemeanor.

Further down in the story, the Times noted that, “Much of the conduct highlighted in the case, which for Risperdal extends from 1999 through 2005, occurred while Alex Gorsky was vice president for sales and marketing and later president of the company’s pharmaceutical unit, Janssen. Mr. Gorsky became chief executive of Johnson & Johnson last year.”

The only comment from the company about that, according to the Times, was this: “Ernie Knewitz, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, noted that the misdemeanor charge was being entered on behalf of the company and no individuals were charged with wrongdoing. ‘Mr. Gorsky has been an outstanding Johnson & Johnson leader for more than 20 years,’ he said.”

That certainly shouldn’t put the issue to rest. By combing through the legal documents and tracking down employees and former employees (the latter would, of course, likely be the best sources), reporters ought to figure out if and how the man who is now the CEO of one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies was directly, hands-on involved in what Attorney General Eric Holder declared last week were practices that “recklessly put at risk the health of some of the most vulnerable members of our society — including young children, the elderly, and the disabled.” (And please do the story even if Mr. Gorsky turns out to have been more of a bystander than an operator; either way this is important.)

3. Christie as governor:

Amid all the stories and Sunday television appearances last week related to Chris Christie being the Republicans’ best hope for 2016, I was hoping for some good reporting on just how effective a governor he has been.

I’m still hoping.

Good, bad, or mixed, this is important stuff. It’s time for a major-league reporter or two to find a long-term deal at a motel in Trenton.

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative. Tags: , ,