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 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 veteran congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook and Peter Overby, power, money and influence correspondent, with contributions from NPR's Washington, Business and Science desks.
Three huge bills are bubbling on Capitol Hill right now: financial regulation, a new energy policy and health care reform. It's a historic confluence of issues that, as a consequence, has the Capitol swarming with lobbyists and awash with money.
NPR is launching a new investigative series to report on these Dollar Politics. Two NPR correspondents attended the first legislative action on health care reform: a meeting of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. We also sent a photographer to take pictures — not of the senators, but of the audience, the people watching the committee meeting, many of them lobbyists.
These days, just about every interest has a lobbyist. Drug manufacturers, hospitals, doctors, pharmacists, marriage counselors, chiropractors, unions; they all have people working the Hill for them. And that's just a fraction of the groups. After all, the health care industry now represents one-sixth of the U.S. economy.
"The people that you see are everything from office interns that are collecting testimony to people who've been lobbying for a long time," said Bill Vaughan, a health care lobbyist for Consumers Union, the nonprofit that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.
"[They] have friendships with various members of Congress or staff and hope to be seen. It's a reminder that their interests are at play," Vaughan said.
Lobbyists also like to gauge the vibe of the room, trying to figure out whether, after nearly a century of hearings, this could be the time Congress actually passes a complete overhaul of the health care system. Vaughan says the vibe feels good. "This year, I'm smelling intensity," he says, "and you can only get that by being in the room."
That's why NPR's Dollar Politics team was in the room as well.
Lobbying is a booming industry in this country. Millions of dollars are flowing into it; millions more flow to members of Congress in the form of campaign contributions, targeted and timed to bolster lobbying efforts.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, says everything's changed in the past decade. "If you look at the numbers, there's a sheer increase," he says, and "we've seen a really massive proliferation in the number of interest groups."
Four decades ago, when Congress passed Medicare, the opposition was pretty much one big group: the American Medical Association. The AMA opposes a public health care plan today as well. But it isn't the only interest group involved anymore, says Zelizer.
"Today health care has hundreds of different interest groups, each specialized in a different issue, each with its own war chest, each giving money and each seeking to protect its interests."
And that brings us back to the room, the lobbyists, and our photos of them. Who are they? Whom do they work for? What do they want health care reform to look like?
NPR's Dollar Politics team will answer some of those questions in our next installment.