The financial services industry spent $100 million this year in its successful effort to get Congress to knock down Depression-era barriers and let banks, securities firms and insurance companies merge with one another and sell one another's products.
The price of persuasion for a coalition of health, insurance and business groups opposing new regulations on managed-care health plans: $30 million during the first six months of 1999.
Health care and banking were two top issues of the just-concluded congressional session, and the industries most affected by the legislation spent millions of dollars during the year in lobbying expenses and campaign contributions.
"Those who plow in lots of money have a weighted advantage our Founding Fathers never intended," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the lead House GOP sponsor of legislation to overhaul campaign finance rules.
Trying to pass legislation to remove Depression-era barriers that barred banks, insurance companies and investment firms from merging or competing against each other, the financial industry spent $187,000 per lawmaker this year on lobbying expenses and campaign contributions. That's according to Public Disclosure, an Internet consulting firm, and the Campaign Study Group, a group of former journalists that conducts research for media organizations.
An Associated Press computer analysis of data from the Campaign Study Group found that supporters of the banking legislation received far more in contributions from financial interests than did opponents. Complete figures were available for lobbying and campaign contributions through the first six months of the year, while several political action committees--but not all--also have reported campaign contributions for the third quarter.
Senators who supported the final bill averaged at least $38,000 in campaign contributions from the financial industry between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, compared with an average of $6,000 for those who opposed the bill. In the House, supporters averaged at least $17,900 from financial interests, while opponents averaged $6,700.
Despite all the money spent, the American public didn't weigh into the fight over overhauling the financial industry, said Sheila Krumholz, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that studies campaign finance. Rather, the entire battle was fought between industry lobbyists and members of Congress, she said.
"It's a classic," Krumholz said. "Not only are people not paying attention, but the lobbyists are such heavy hitters. There [are] such enormous and wealthy interests that the politicians are eager to collect campaign reelection funds from."
Efforts to regulate managed-health-care organizations, on the other hand, did attract the public's interest. Polls show that health care is consistently among the top two or three issues of concern to potential voters.
Still, the health care industry won when Congress didn't pass a bill. Members of the Health Benefits Coalition--which represents health care, insurance and business organizations--spent $28.5 million to lobby and gave $1.5 million to federal candidates between Jan. 1 and June 30. That comes out to $56,000 per lawmaker.
The Senate legislation, criticized by consumer groups and Democrats as supporting the health industry and failing to protect patients, passed 53-47, largely along party lines. Supporters of the bill received an average of at least $27,000 from the health care industry--including members of the Health Benefits Coalition--through Sept. 30, while opponents averaged $2,300, the AP computer analysis showed.
Likewise, while the House eventually passed bipartisan legislation that would give patients the right to sue their health maintenance organizations, lawmakers first rejected three substitutes that would have weakened the bill's consumer protections. In all three cases, lawmakers who backed the rejected versions averaged higher contributions from the health industry than those who voted against them.
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's health subcommittee, questioned the correlation between contributions and votes.
"Just because somebody votes a certain way doesn't mean they're bought," Thomas said. "They could see the world the same way."
CAPTION: Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) says big spenders have a "weighted advantage" when lobbying Congress.