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 "Dollar Politics," a multipart, multimedia series, NPR examines this extraordinary intersection between money and politics and what it could mean for public policy.
Dollar Politics is being reported by veteran congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook and Peter Overby, power, money and influence correspondent, with contributions from NPR's Washington, Business and Science desks.
When we started our series "Dollar Politics," about the confluence of legislating, lobbying and money, we posted a photo on NPR.org — a panoramic shot of the lobbyists watching the first Senate session to write a health care bill. We asked you to help us identify the lobbyists in the room. It's a little trick of modern reporting called "crowd sourcing." And the tips started coming immediately, through e-mails, tweets and comments on NPR.org. We then worked to verify them.
We can now tell you that Marc Schloss was at that first health care session. He works for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, which spent $1.4 million lobbying Congress last year.
Kalah Auchincloss is at the lobbying firm Foley Hoag. You can see her in the picture, leafing through papers. In 2008, her firm took in more than $1 million from health care clients.
We have now identified 16 people in the photo, all lobbyists with big interests in how the health reform debate turns out.
One Picture, Many Interpretations
Just as interesting as the photo itself was people's reaction to it — and how many different ways one picture can be looked at.
"It helped me put a face to a name," said Brett Coughlin, who reports for Inside Health Policy, a trade Web site. It turns out that Coughlin has been trying to get in touch with one of those lobbyists for some time.
"Now I know what she looks like and I can track her down if I see her at a hearing, or in the halls on Capitol Hill somewhere," he said.
A couple of lobbyists identified themselves or their colleagues. Michelle Dirst of the American Psychiatric Association was pointed out by her boss, Nicholas Meyers. Meyers said he hopes that some of the psychiatrists he lobbies for go look at the picture.
"They deserve to know that we're there and we're on the job. And they would be upset if they thought we weren't," he said.
Meyers says health reform will directly affect how psychiatrists practice — and how they get paid.
"That's the system we have, and it's the system we work with," he said.
The View From Akron
Not everyone's reaction was so positive.
"Here in Akron, Ohio, we sit here and go, 'That's what's so awful,' " said Paula Apynys, who e-mailed DollarPolitics@npr.org after seeing the photo online. She and her husband run a little design firm in Ohio.
She responded to the photo like dozens others: She looked at it and saw no one there to represent her.
"The feeling that you get is that everything that comes out of Washington in the end benefits people who are already well-off," said Apynys. "I don't want to oversimplify it, but on the one hand, your bankers have been well taken care of — and taken care of very swiftly."
In a matter of weeks last fall, Congress approved hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out big financial companies. Now, Apynys says, as she watches lawmakers inch along on health care, she has a sick feeling in her stomach.
"All we can do out here in the hinterlands is just ... ache. I mean, you just sit out here and you just think, you know, the next person is going to die because they can't get coverage," she said.
Feeling Drowned Out
So in a way, the photo shows us not just 200 people in a room, but a microcosm of the remarkable process taking place in the Capitol in the summer of 2009. People inside the beltway find the picture interesting and useful, if a little bit obvious.
People outside the beltway are mostly angry. They feel helplessly drowned out of the debate.
Everybody showed a voracious appetite for more information — about the players lobbying Congress on health care, climate change and financial regulation. And everyone seems to want to know who those players are — and how much money they have behind their arguments.