DAVID GREENE, host:
Now, from the court to Congress. In a normal year, Congress might tackle one big thing. This is not a normal year. In addition to health care reform, two other huge bills are bubbling on Capitol Hill: financial regulation, and also a new energy policy. And this historic confluence of issues has the capital swarming with lobbyists. Today, NPR is launching a new investigative series to report on this, and we're calling it Dollar Politics.
And the first report, NPR correspondents Peter Overby and Andrea Seabrook look at the lobbying effort around health care reform.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
ANDREA SEABROOK: A Senate hearing room, people gathering for the session. There's a sense of anticipation.
PETER OVERBY: Wood-paneled walls, plush carpet, long tables arranged in a square, with 22 armchairs for the senators.
SEABROOK: This is the official kick-off of health care reform - the first real legislative action.
OVERBY: At each senator's place, a microphone, a glass of ice water and one other thing.
SEABROOK: A stack of papers two feet high. The smaller chunk of it is the bill. Most of the stack is changes senators want to make.
(Soundbite of gavel pounding)
OVERBY: Senator Chris Dodd brings to order the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): This is about as historic as it gets for all of us. One hundred percent of our fellow citizens will be affected by what we do in the area of health care, every consumer, every business, every provider as well. And so this is truly historic, the journey that we're beginning this morning in this committee to deal with this issue.
OVERBY: Now if you follow Congress at all, you've probably seen something like this on CSPAN.
SEABROOK: The Senators, staff bustling around them, passing out papers, whispering in ears.
OVERBY: But suppose you could turn the camera around, look away from the senators toward the other half of the room, the part that's not on TV. What do you see?
SEABROOK: You see rows and rows of chairs, 200 seats, and they are full, many of them with lobbyists.
OVERBY: These days, just about every interest has a lobbyist - drug manufacturers, hospitals, doctors, pharmacists.
SEABROOK: Marriage counselors, chiropractors, unions - and that's just a fraction of the group.
OVERBY: This group is packed with people taking notes, thumbing Blackberries. They're here to witness as this committee takes a step toward overhauling an industry that makes up one-sixth of the economy.
SEABROOK: Bill Vaughn lobbies on health care for the Consumers Union. That's the nonprofit that publishes Consumer Reports. Vaughn worked on the House Ways and Means Committee for 36 years, and he helped write some of the big health care bills.
Mr. BILL VAUGHN (Lobbyist, Consumers Union): The people that you see are everything from office interns who are collecting testimony to people who've been lobbying for a long time who have friendships with the various members of Congress or staff and hope to be seen. It's a reminder that their interests are at play. It's a very social thing.
SEABROOK: And Vaughn says there's another good reason to be in the room if you're a lobbyist: to gage the vibe.
Mr. VAUGHN: We've worked on health reform in this country since 1915. And you can go and you say, this is another one of those hearings and nothing's going to happen. It's going to be another year. And the intensity is not there.
OVERBY: This time, Vaughn says, it's different.
Mr. VAUGHN: This year, I'm smelling intensity. I hope so. And you can only get that by being in the room.
SEABROOK: Being in the room.
OVERBY: As we launch NPR's Dollar Politics series, we were in the room, too.
SEABROOK: And we were taking pictures - not of the Senators, but of the lobbyists. You can see them at npr.org.
OVERBY: See, lobbying is a booming industry in this country. Millions of dollars are flowing into it. Millions more flow to members of Congress, campaign contributions targeted and timed to bolster lobbying efforts. Four decades ago, when Congress passed Medicare, the opposition pretty much came from one big group, the American Medical Association. The AMA opposes a public health plan today as well, but it's not the only voice anymore.
SEABROOK: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He says everything's changed in the past decade.
Professor JULIAN ZELIZER (History and Public Affairs, Princeton University): Today, health care has hundreds of different interest groups, each specialized on a different issue, each with its own war chest, each giving money, and each seeking to protect its interests.
SEABROOK: And that brings us back to the room, the lobbyists and our photos of them. Who are they? Who do they work for? What do they want health care reform to look like?
OVERBY: We'll tell you about some of them tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
SEABROOK: And Andrea Seabrook.
OVERBY: NPR News, Washington.