Baucus Watch, Part XII

The mother’s milk of politics and more

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus holds the keys to health care reform; any health care legislation must pass through his committee. So what he says or doesn’t say is important to those following the twists and turns of the congressional effort to fix our health care system. This is the twelfth of an occasional series of posts on the senator’s pronouncements and how the media has covered them. The entire series is archived here.

Poor Max Baucus! The pressure on him must be enormous—what with the president pushing for him to produce a bill by the August recess, the single-payer folks still holding rallies in his home state, and conservatives camping in front of his Montana office protesting that the president’s “plan” is too socialistic. These must be trivial, though, compared to the demands from all those health care special interests who have given him gobs of money to see things their way. The senator must truly be conflicted.

But in the lobbying biz, money isn’t the only thing that matters. The amounts that special interests give are astronomical, and the totals so staggering that they’ve sort of lost their meaning with the public. The Washington Post reported, in an informative piece by Dan Eggen, that health-related companies and their employees contributed nearly $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008 to Baucus’s political action committees (PACs) when he began holding hearings on health reform.

The senator’s fundraising efforts have continued apace. The Post tells us that health executives and lobbyists have flocked to recent extravagant fundraising events, such as his tenth annual fly-fishing and golfing weekend in Big Sky, Montana—minimum donation, $2,500. Camp Baucus, complete with horseback riding and hiking and fun for the whole family, is coming up soon. Apparently the senator stopped taking contributions from health care PACs on June 1—to avoid any appearance of favoritism (although donations from lobbyists and health execs are still welcome), his aides explained. One told the Post that the senator “is only driven by one thing: what is right for Montana and the country.” The senator himself is not talking.

Lobbying, however, is much more than PAC contributions and donations to fishing parties. It’s all about ideology and relationships, and here’s where the Sunlight Foundation comes in, providing clarity on just who has the senator’s ear. (Disclosure: the Sunlight Foundation is a CJR funder.) The Foundation has created the Max Baucus Health Care Lobbyist Complex—recommended reading for anyone curious about what might come out of the Senate Finance Committee in the coming days or weeks. The Foundation identified five former Baucus staff members who now lobby for health care and insurance interests, representing twenty-seven companies and associations.

For example, David Castagnetti, now of the firm Mehlmen Vogel Castagnetti Inc., represents such health care heavies as Merck, Astra Zeneca, Abbott Labs, Humana, Mayo Clinic, GE Healthcare, AHIP, the Business Roundtable, Biogen, the American College of Cardiologists, the American Osteopathic Association, and Big Pharma.

The Sunlight Foundation also points out that there is often overlap, with different former staffers working for the same clients. Call it the interlocking directorates of the lobbying game. Roger Blauwet, another former staffer who now works for Canfield & Associates, also represents Merck as well as Wyeth and Rx Benefits Coalition. Former staffers for other Finance Committee members also represent the same cast of special interests. For example, Kelly Bingel, the former chief of staff for Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, also works for Mehlmen Vogel Castagnetti and handles some of the same clients. Another base covered.

These kinds of relationships are invaluable to the special interests who want to make sure that their legislative concerns are heard loud and clear. It’s not likely a senator will ignore someone with whom he or she has worked closely for years. The Sunlight Foundation study shows exactly what advocates of real and substantive health reform are up against. Early on in the presidential campaign, we started urging the mainstream media to look at both the money and the lobbyists’ connections. Last week, NPR interviewed Paul Blumenthal, the mastermind behind the Sunlight Foundation’s lobbyist database, and it zeroed in on Sen. Baucus.

We’re glad to see others watching Baucus too. When the Senate Finance Committee finally releases its revised legislation, we hope NPR and others will start matching up specific provisions in the bill with all those lobbyists populating Paul Blumenthal’s Health Care Lobbying Complex. With Google Maps, you can do almost anything these days.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.