STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A lot of laws are changing this year, so in our series Dollar Politics we're looking at the business of crafting legislation. And you did hear us right: Dollar Politics. They go together. Specifically we're looking at the three big issues before Congress right now: health care, climate change and financial regulation.
Today, NPR's Dollar Politics team reports on how lawmakers juggle that work with their other big job - raising money to get reelected. Here's Andrea Seabrook and Peter Overby.
PETER OVERBY: We start at the same place we've started the other Dollar Politics stories - in the room.
ANDREA SEABROOK: The Senate Hearing room, where 22 senators are just beginning to assemble an actual plan for overhauling America's health care system. This is the same room where our photographer took a group portrait of the lobbyists in attendance. The photo is at npr.org and there's more on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED tonight.
OVERBY: It was June 17th, a bit after 10:00 a.m., when Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd got the meeting started.
Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): 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. Reform is not a luxury but an absolute necessity.
SEABROOK: It was a hectic day for Dodd. He's chairing this committee while the official chairman, Senator Edward Kennedy, is being treated for cancer.
OVERBY: When the committee took its lunch break, Dodd dashed off to meet with President Obama about another huge project he's spearheading in the Senate: fixing the nation's financial industry.
SEABROOK: But squeezed in between the committee meeting and the White House, Dodd made one other stop: he popped in at a fundraiser for him.
OVERBY: A luncheon to support Dodd's reelection campaign - $1,500 a plate.
SEABROOK: The hosts were two lobbyists. They work for U.S. Oncology, a big provider of cancer drugs and services. Their business is all wrapped up in the health care proposals.
OVERBY: Now, there were other donors there, too - not just those with health care interests, according to Dodd's campaign manager.
SEABROOK: But it's a snapshot of something that happens all the time on Capitol Hill: a member of Congress spends part of the day legislating, part of the day raising money.
OVERBY: And the money comes from the industries that will gain or lose from the legislation.
SEABROOK: Some people call it the way the system works. Some call it bribery.
OVERBY: But not the Supreme Court. It said campaign contributions are not bribes.
SEABROOK: Lobbyists don't think so, either, especially since the money usually comes from political action committees, a step removed from a corporation itself.
OVERBY: Nicholas Meyers runs the lobbying operation for the American Psychiatric Association, representing 38,000 psychiatrists. He says it's simply the price of admission.
Mr. NICHOLAS MEYERS (American Psychiatric Association): 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.
SEABROOK: After all, lobbyists represent groups of individuals, and individuals have a constitutional right to petition their government.
OVERBY: But let's look at it from the politicians' point of view. They're the ones with the conflict, raising all that money while writing all those laws.
SEABROOK: Well, here's what Christopher Dodd's spokesman told us in an email. Quote: "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 interests of the people of Connecticut."
OVERBY: A House member, Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley, put it this way:
Representative BRUCE BRALEY (Democrat, Iowa): I look at these as two separate and distinct things that I do. One is to try to get reelected, the other is to do a good job for my district, and I think that's the way most members look at it.
OVERBY: But Braley does admit it's not always quite so clear a difference. For instance, a lobbyist once withheld a campaign contribution because Braley voted the wrong way.
Rep. BRALEY: 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, you know. So I think that you could read into that what you will.
SEABROOK: And 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.
OVERBY: And his campaign contributions from the health care industry, they're surging.
SEABROOK: All this is no surprise to Patrick Griffin. He used to be a lobbyist himself.
Dr. PATRICK GRIFFIN (Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute, American University): It is always an asset to be able support the people that are supporting your point of view.
SEABROOK: Now Griffin teaches would-be lobbyists at American University here in Washington.
Dr. GRIFFIN: I think the real point of contention is whether or not money follows the votes or the votes follow the money.
OVERBY: So on the question of money on Capitol Hill - is it a tool or is it a bribe - you might as well ask which came first:
SEABROOK: The chicken?
OVERBY: ?or the egg?
SEABROOK: Andrea Seabrook?
OVERBY: ?and Peter Overby?
SEABROOK: ?NPR News, Washington.