The Influence Industry

Health insurers' group gave U.S. Chamber $86.2 million in 2009 for lobbying

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry explains why health-care premiums will increase next year for federal workers and retirees.
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 7:58 PM

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce astonished even the most jaded Washington-watchers last year when it reported spending nearly $150 million on lobbying. The figure obliterated all previous records and cemented the chamber's reputation as Capitol Hill's most formidable lobbying force.

But it turns out that a lot of that money came from an injection of funds from another lobbying powerhouse: America's Health Insurance Plans.

The private insurers' group gave $86.2 million toward the chamber's media and lobbying blitz against President Obama's health-care legislation in 2009 even as it was pledging general support for the idea of reform, according to tax records and sources familiar with the gift.

The donation made AHIP the chamber's single largest funder in 2009, accounting for about 40 percent of the business lobby's $205 million in contributions that year, records show.

"These contributions supported the chamber's efforts to advance a market-based health-care system and advocate for fundamental reform that would improve access to quality care while lowering costs for all Americans," chamber spokesman Tom Collamore said in a statement. "We did this through public opinion polling, nationwide grassroots, national advertising, events throughout the country and significant earned media outreach."

The chamber, which is organized as a nonprofit group, reported the donation as part of its annual financial report to the Internal Revenue Service, which does not require public disclosure of the donors. AHIP's identity as the donor, first reported by Bloomberg News, was confirmed by sources familiar with the transaction.

It was always clear that AHIP and the chamber were united in fighting against Obama's health-care plan, particularly a proposed "public insurance option" that would have competed with private insurers. But the new IRS filing illustrates the extent of the business lobby's alliance with AHIP, whose members include insurance giants such as UnitedHealthcare, Cigna and Aetna.

Christy Setzer of U.S. Chamber Watch, a labor-backed group opposed to the chamber, said the business lobby "has given up the right to call themselves the voice of American business; they are the voice of the insurance industry."

"Insurers gave the chamber 86 million reasons to lie to small businesses about the benefits of health-care reform, and the chamber didn't let their CEO friends down," Setzer said.

AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach declined to comment on spending details but said the group opposed a public-insurance option because it would have hurt existing policy holders.

"With so much at stake, we, like other major stakeholders, invested in advocacy," Zirkelbach said in a statement. "We supported a number of leading health-care advocacy organizations and coalitions that shared our views."

Times are tight, but not for everyone

Times might be tough for most Americans but not for the well-heeled lawmakers in Congress.

The personal wealth of members of Congress collectively increased by 16 percent between 2008 and 2009, even as the economic downturn eliminated millions of jobs for ordinary Americans, according to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics released Wednesday.

In the House, the study found, the median wealth was $765,010, up from $645,503 in 2008. In the Senate, median wealth grew from $2.27 million in 2008 to $2.38 million in 2009.

The new data come as lawmakers consider whether to extend tax cuts for couples making $250,000 or more - a move that presumably would benefit many of the members. The Obama administration wants to confine the tax breaks to earnings under $250,000, although it has signaled it might be open to a compromise with Republicans on the issue.

Lawmakers are required only to list ranges of wealth in the personal financial disclosures they file each May. The center used averages between the minimum and maximum numbers to estimate each member's holdings; it used a median measurement for each chamber as a whole.

The researchers at CRP also identified 251 millionaires in Congress, including eight lawmakers worth $10 million or more.

The top three on the list were Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), with holdings exceeding $303.5 million; Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), with $293.4 million; and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at $238.8 million.

"Few federal lawmakers must grapple with the financial ills - unemployment, loss of housing, wiped out savings - that have befallen millions of Americans," said Sheila Krumholz, the center's executive director.

Maxine Waters gets a boost

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) recently got a boost from a well-known legal mind to help pay for expenses surrounding an ethics investigation of her ties to a bank that employed her husband.

Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor and author, gave $1,000 to Waters's legal expense fund, according to a disclosure form filed with House ethics officials.

Ogletree said he has been a friend of Waters's for decades and traveled with her on a few occasions, including a trip to monitor elections in Haiti in the 1990s. "I've just been a big fan of the work that she's done on capital punishment and on behalf of Haitians," he said.

The donation was the lone contribution listed on Waters's disclosure form, which covers only September. The first fundraiser for the fund was held last month, when several dozen other people contributed, a Waters spokesman said.

Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

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