By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Health insurers and drug makers have showered members of the 111th Congress with millions in campaign contributions over the last four years, with a special focus on leaders who will play major roles in shaping health-care legislation, according to a study to be released tomorrow.
Health insurers and their employees contributed $2.2 million to the top 10 recipients in the House and Senate since 2005, while drug makers and their employees gave more than $3.3 million to top lawmakers during that period, according to an analysis of federal elections data by Consumer Watchdog, a California-based advocacy group.
The biggest beneficiaries in the Senate included John McCain (R-Ariz.), with $546,000; Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with $425,000; and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), with $413,000, who as head of the Finance Committee will play a leading role in the debate over health-care reform.
In the House, the two groups gave $257,000 to Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and $249,000 to Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). On the Democratic side, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) received contributions from the insurance sector ($104,000), while Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.) took in $180,000 from drug companies.
The donations underscore the stakes in the health-care debate as President Obama pushes for dramatic changes by year's end, with the aim of sharply expanding the number of Americans covered by health insurance. Obama held a health-care summit at the White House last week and has proposed a $634 billion reserve fund to kick off the process.
The health-care sector has long ranked with financial services and energy interests as one of the most powerful political forces in Washington, and it spent nearly $1 billion on lobbying in the past two years alone. As momentum moves toward overhauling health care, major medical groups have stepped up their lobbying and campaign activities while shifting money and attention to newly empowered Democrats, according to federal records and industry experts.
"This is the next big fight on Capitol Hill," said Craig Holman, a governmental affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, which did not play a role in the new study. "Now that Obama is about to start making health care one of his greatest priorities, we are going to see these legions of health-care campaign contributions and lobbying activity as they try to win a seat at the table."
Consumer Watchdog, formerly known as the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, says the amount of money pouring into Congress from the health-care sector raises questions about the independence of lawmakers as they consider dramatic changes to the health-care system. The group conducted the study using Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, isolating the insurance and pharmaceutical categories from the broader health-care sector.
Obama, who is not included in the analysis because he is no longer in Congress, received more than $2 million from the insurance and pharmaceutical sectors during his record-breaking presidential campaign. All of the contributions were from individuals, however, as Obama forswore donations from political-action committees.
Jerry Flanagan, Consumer Watchdog's health-care advocate, noted that Baucus was the top Democratic recipient of contributions from health insurers and drug makers over the past four years. Baucus has taken a leading role in the health-care reform debate, and he issued a "white paper" in November advocating the kind of mandatory-coverage approach favored by major insurance companies.
"The concern here is that money is buying influence and policy changes that help the industry but hurt the American people," Flanagan said. "They want a policy that requires Americans to buy their product."
But Baucus aides say the Montana senator has championed many policies opposed by health insurers and drug companies, including cuts in payments to Medicare Advantage plans and support for importing lower-cost drugs from Canada.
"For 30 years, Max Baucus has only been influenced by one thing: what's right for Montana and what is right for the nation," Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf said. "Health-care reform is the same. His only goal is to make sure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care."
W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, a former Republican House member from Louisiana who runs the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said campaign contributions from his industry simply reflect participation in American democracy.
"We do what most people do in political systems: We support people with whom we agree and with whom we believe in," Tauzin said, adding, "We also support other people who don't always agree with us but are honest and fair and open-minded."