Legislating Under the Influence

Health care industry pours on the campaign cash and lobbying to derail reform, new report finds

As the debate over reforming the health care system heats up in Congress, a new report by Common Cause finds that major health care interests are spending more than $1.4 million a day to lobby Capitol Hill so far this year, and that those same health care interests have significantly ramped up campaign contributions, donating about $373 million to Members of Congress since 2000.

The report, “Legislating Under the Influence,” shows how the health care industry has spent billions on campaign contributions and lobbying over the past decade to influence Congress, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The lion’s share of that spending has been strategically targeted at leadership, committees with power over their health agenda, and members of the majority party, and has escalated steadily throughout the period. The numbers highlight the tension in our pay-to-play campaign finance system that forces lawmakers to choose between the often-competing interests of their major campaign contributors and the public.

“The American people voted for change in 2008, and three out of four people want a public health insurance option, but powerful health industry interests are pouring on the cash to keep the status quo,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar, a former congressman who also serves on the boards of the National Coalition on Healthcare and Families USA. “When health industry executives bankroll the campaigns of the legislators in charge of writing the rules, it creates an undeniable risk of bias, and destroys the public’s trust in its government. We need a campaign finance system that serves the public interest, not special interests and the lawmakers they help get elected.”

Key findings include:

  • Health industries – including health insurance, pharmaceuticals and health products, hospitals and HMOs, and health professionals – have contributed over $373 million in campaign contributions to members of Congress since 2000.
  • Political spending by the health industries has increased 73 percent since 2000. Health interests contributed about $94 million to candidates for Congress in the 2008 election cycle, up from about $54 million in the 2000 cycle.
  • Members serving on committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over health care reform in the House and Senate received the lion’s share of health industries’ largesse. Committee members raised $178 million from the industries this decade – roughly half of the industries’ contributions to the entire Congress. Since 2000, the House members sitting on health committees have raised twice as much money from the health industry per election cycle as non-committee members (an average of 171,000 compared to 87,000), and the average House member on a key health subcommittee hauled in three times as much per cycle ($269,000). Senators with plum committee posts also enjoy sizable fundraising advantages.
  • The industries engage in “switch-hitting” – shifting campaign contributions between Democrats and Republicans to win access with the party in power. In 2000, with Republicans controlling the House and a closely-divided Senate, Republicans on health-related committees received more than double what Democrats received (68 percent to 32 percent) from the health industries. In 2008, with Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, over 61 percent of the industries’ contributions to committee members went to the majority Democrats and just 39 percent went to Republicans.
  • The major health interests have spent an average of $1.4 million per day to lobby Congress so far this year and are on track to spend more than half a billion dollars by the end 2009. That comes out to about $2,600 per day per member of the House and Senate. The pharmaceutical lobby alone spent $733,000 per day in the first quarter of 2009. Since 2000, the industries have spent over $3 billion on lobbying, with the total increasing every year and rising more than 142 percent over the course of the decade. In each of the past four years health interests have been the number-one lobbying force in Washington, measured in expenditures, and have averaged over $1 million per day.

The report’s appendix lists campaign contributions received by members of Congress who serve on committees with jurisdiction over health care: The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, the House Education and Labor Committee and the health committees of the Senate Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Common Cause continues to work to pass the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826 / S.752) as the comprehensive solution to the pay-to-play culture in Washington, DC, which would create a citizen-funded election system for Congress in which candidates could run for office on a blend of small donations and public funds.