Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
On June 17, Sen. Chris Dodd stopped at a fundraiser hosted by health care lobbyists back-to-back with a session at which health care policy was being crafted (shown above).
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), right, presents a stack of documents comprising the health care reform bill on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 17. That day the senator stopped at a fundraiser hosted by health care lobbyists back-to-back with the session where health care policy was being crafted. Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
The invitation to a $1,500-a-plate fundraiser on June 17 for Dodd's re-election, hosted by health care lobbyists.
The invitation to a $1,500-a-plate fundraiser on June 17 for Dodd's re-election, hosted by health care lobbyists. politicalpartytime.org
Millions of dollars are pouring into Capitol Hill this summer, as lobbyists jockey to have their clients' interests represented in three major pieces of legislation just beginning to take shape. The objects of the lobbyists' attention: massive bills on health care, banking regulation and energy.
In a multipart, multimedia series beginning this week, NPR examines this extraordinary intersection between money and politics, and what it could mean for public policy.
Dollar Politics is being reported by Andrea Seabrook, veteran congressional correspondent, and Peter Overby, power, money and influence correspondent, with contributions from NPR's Washington, business and science desks.
NPR's Dollar Politics series looks at the business of crafting legislation, specifically the big three issues now before Congress: health care, climate change and financial regulation.
In this installment, Andrea Seabrook and Peter Overby report on how lawmakers juggle that work with their other big job — raising money to get re-elected.
On June 17, a bit after 10 a.m., 22 senators gathered in a hearing room were just beginning to assemble a plan for overhauling America's health care system. Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd got the meeting started.
"We cannot afford to wait any longer. In the words of the president earlier this week, when it comes to the cost of our health care, the status quo is unsustainable," Dodd said. "Reform is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity."
It was a hectic day for Dodd, who is chairing the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee while the official chairman, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), is being treated for cancer.
When the committee took its lunch break, Dodd dashed off to meet with President Obama about another huge project he is spearheading in the Senate — fixing the nation's financial industry.
But squeezed in between the committee meeting and the White House, Dodd made one other stop: He popped in at a fundraiser — for him.
Lobbyists As Fundraisers
The fundraiser was a $1,500-a-plate luncheon, hosted by two lobbyists, with proceeds going to support Dodd's re-election campaign.
The lobbyists hosting the fundraising event work for U.S. Oncology, a major provider of cancer drugs and services. Their business is all wrapped up in the health care proposals.
According to Dodd's campaign manager, there were other donors in attendance — not just those with a stake in health care policy. But this scenario is a snapshot of something that happens all the time on Capitol Hill.
A member of Congress will routinely spend part of the day legislating — and part of the day raising money. And that money often comes from the industries that will gain or lose from that legislation.
Paying To Play?
Some people call it the way the system works. Others call it bribery — but not the Supreme Court. The high court has said that campaign contributions are not bribes.
Lobbyists don't think so either, especially because the money usually comes from political action committees — a step removed from corporations themselves.
Nicholas Meyers, who runs the lobbying operation for the American Psychiatric Association, representing 38,000 psychiatrists, says it's simply the price of admission.
"It gets us the kind of short-term individual attention that a constituent could get walking into the member's office and meeting with them for half an hour," Meyers said.
After all, lobbyists represent groups of individuals. And individuals have the constitutional right to petition their government.
But it's worthwhile to look at this situation from the politicians' point of view. They are the ones with the conflict: raising all that money, while writing all those laws.
'Two Separate And Distinct Things'
As for Dodd, his spokesman wrote an e-mail: "Campaign contributions do not and never have influenced Senator Dodd's agenda and priorities. His work is always and has always been about representing the interest of the people of Connecticut."
Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa put it this way: "I look at these as two separate and distinct things that I do. One is to try to get re-elected, and the other is to do a good job for my district, and I think that's the way most members look at it."
But Braley, a Democrat, does admit it's not always quite so clear a difference. For instance, a lobbyist once withheld a campaign contribution because Braley didn't vote the way the lobbyist wanted.
"We were under the impression that an entity was going to participate in my fundraiser, and then a vote came up in the committee and they didn't show up. So I think you can read into that what you will," said Braley.
Braley is an interesting example for another reason: Just this year he scored a seat on one of the most important committees writing the health care bill, and his campaign contributions from the health care industry shot up.
All of this is no surprise to Patrick Griffin, who used to be a lobbyist himself.
"It is always an asset to support the people that are supporting your point of view," said Griffin, who now teaches would-be lobbyists at American University in Washington, D.C. "I think the real point of contention is whether the money follows the votes or the votes follow the money."
So on the question of money in politics — is it a tool or a bribe? — you might as well ask which came first: the chicken or the egg?