Democrats last week came to terms with a lobbying force of unexpected influence in the health care debate: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a central element of the Roman Catholic Church in America.
But the group has nary a lobbyist on the payroll. So how exactly did the conference successfully push for an anti-abortion amendment to be added to health care overhaul legislation in the House?
Offering More Than Just A Moral Framework
To answer that question, it's helpful to know who John Carr is. He isn't a bishop himself, but he runs the Bishops' Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development. And he isn't a registered lobbyist. But like a lot of other people who aren't registered lobbyists, he lobbies.
The Conference of Bishops said neither Carr nor anyone else would comment for this story.
But back in July, Carr did go on Catholic Radio Weekly, a news and information program from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The interviewer asked Carr about a new papal encyclical on the importance of moral values.
Carr made this point: "We have a distinctive place in public debate. The church doesn't offer specific solutions. But if offers a moral framework, an ethical criteria," Carr said.
But a "specific solution" is exactly what critics say the Conference of Bishops demanded when it insisted on anti-abortion language in the health care overhaul bill. Clergy and staff were in the room with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she agreed to let Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak offer an anti-abortion amendment. The amendment was approved, 240-194.
Some pro-choice Democrats say they may vote against the entire bill if it comes back to the House from the Senate with the language intact.
But if the Conference of Bishops is a force to be reckoned with, it's not because it's one of those high-powered operations that hold fundraisers and retreats for members of Congress.
"Probably no more than a handful of people associated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are actively involved, for example, in promoting legislation on Capitol Hill," says Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington.
Schneck says the conference a few years ago had to cut its budget. He says, "One of the things that seems to be the result of this downsizing is a narrowing of their strongest efforts to life issues" — mainly, the controversies over abortion and stem-cell research.
When Religion Collides With Legislative Process
But the bishops' conference still has clout. One big reason is its power over the church infrastructure. In Washington parlance, that would be the grass tops that influence the grass roots.
Late last month, the conference sent out nearly 19,000 notices for church bulletins that Sunday. They said that without strong anti-abortion language, Catholics should oppose the health care bill.
"Very few religions have the type of lobby machine that the United States Conference of Bishops have," says Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. O'Brien says polls consistently show that a majority of Catholics are more liberal on reproductive issues than the conference is.
"Sometimes religious leaders are given a free pass, and it's as though we don't ask, 'Who do you represent, and is what you're saying factually correct?' " O'Brien says.
As for that "specific solution" that so angers critics, it's hardly the first time religion has collided with the legislative process.
Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton, says that 35 years ago ministers, priests and rabbis fought to break a filibuster of the civil rights bill. Zelizer says they visited senators' offices every day, and they kept a vigil in the Senate galleries.
"So they were literally this hovering presence in the Capitol," Zelizer says.
Which suggests that if Catholic bishops flexed their lobbying muscles to win the anti-abortion provision they wanted, it's an incremental change, not a new chapter opening on Capitol Hill.