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Paying big to buy Congress

By
September 16, 2009

Sen. Max Baucus, a leader in the troubled effort in Congress to write a health care overhaul bill, has received more campaign donations from the health industry than any elected federal official except President Barack Obama and three other senators.

Baucus, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has collected $3.9 million in donations from the health industry since 1989. Yet, when it comes to generous campaign contributions from doctors, drug makers, hospitals and other medical interests, the Montana Democrat has company from a group of colleagues he’s seen a lot of lately.

Baucus is part of the “Gang of Six,” three Democrats and three Republicans who have labored since June to write what Baucus hopes will be a bipartisan bill cutting health costs and extending coverage to millions of Americans. All of them have received above-average donations from the health care world.

Four other congressional committees have produced bills that tilt heavily toward Democratic priorities. The work of the Gang of Six is important because Baucus’ bill — set to be unveiled Wednesday — is seen as the closest to a draft that might win Senate passage with some GOP support. It’s also the closest to what the health industry wants: It has no government-run insurance option, would require individuals to get coverage and sets up experiments in limiting medical malpractice suits.

Among them, the six senators have raised $10.7 million since 1989 from the industries and people with the most at stake financially in the overhaul effort. That’s an average of nearly $1.8 million apiece over that period, more than triple the roughly $560,000 average for all other senators and representatives.

The figures are based on data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which studies political spending, and actually understate health-related contributions. The center’s researchers include only some campaign donations from health insurers in the health category because they lump many health insurers’ donations into a separate category for insurance, real estate and financial firms.

Even so, the data spotlight the financial clout health interests wield on Capitol Hill.

Corporate and individual contributions from the health sector to current officeholders have totaled $328 million over the past two decades. The leaders are Obama, with $20 million, mostly during his presidential run last year, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, his GOP opponent, with $9 million.

Health insurers alone have donated at least $42 million to lawmakers, including nearly $2 million to the six senators working on the health legislation.

In the first six months of this year, health interests have made campaign contributions of $23 million. By comparison, the biggest 2009 donors so far — finance, real estate and insurance interests — have given $50 million.

Since 1989, five of Baucus’ top 20 campaign contributors have been from the health care world: drug makers Schering-Plough Corp. and Amgen Inc., insurers Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Aetna Inc., and DaVita Inc., which provides dialysis services. From 2005 through this year, 18 percent of his campaign funds have come from the health sector, though he has also relied heavily on donations from insurance, finance, real estate and law interests — all with key interests before his tax-writing panel.

Baucus spokesman Tyler Matsdorf said the senator was too busy to be interviewed. His office said Baucus has clashed with health insurers and pharmaceutical companies.

“I resent any implication that any of my actions or decisions are a result of contributions,” Baucus told the Independent Record newspaper of Helena, Mont., last month. “I resent that because that is totally inaccurate. I do what I think is right, period.”

Critics say campaign funds inevitably have impact.

“Companies like the health care industry don’t spend money on members of Congress because they think it’s like burning their money and throwing it away. They spend money on members of Congress because they believe it gets them results,” said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and co-founder of Change-Congress.org, an advocacy group seeking to end large private political donations.

Of the six senators, Charles Grassley of Iowa comes closest to Baucus’ health donations — $2.7 million, ranking him 14th among officeholders.

The Finance Committee’s top Republican, Grassley is the only one of the six who faces re-election next year, and his $227,000 in contributions from health interests in the first half of 2009 places him eighth among lawmakers for the period. Twenty-six percent of his campaign contributions since 2005 have come from health interests, the highest proportion in the Gang of Six, including large amounts from Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Amgen and the insurer AFLAC Inc.

“Senator Grassley accepts campaign contributions that are legal and come with no strings attached,” said spokeswoman Jill Kozeny.

Even the Gang of Six member with the smallest take from health interests, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has tallied $756,000 from the health sector. That ranks her 122nd of 533 current members of Congress.

Snowe could be a critical actor in this year’s health care drama because she is considered the likeliest Republican to back a Democratic bill. She doesn’t face the voters again until 2012.

Of the other senators in the Gang of Six:

  • Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has received $1.6 million in health contributions since 1989, 35th among lawmakers.
  • Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has accumulated $865,000, ranking him 102nd.
  • Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has gotten $844,000, ranking him 104th.

Besides Obama and McCain, only Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., have received more health contributions than Baucus, $8.3 million and $4.5 million, respectively.

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On the Net:

Center for Responsive Politics: http://www.opensecrets.org