Campaign Contributions and Health Reform

Published on
December 22, 2009

Follow the money. That simple phrase – though never uttered by Bob Woodward's most famous source – has propelled countless reporters to dig deeply into all manner of news stories.

And nearly four decades after Woodward and Carl Bernstein tracked donations to President Nixon's reelection committee, the ability to follow the money trail in politics remains a powerful tool for reporters regardless of their beats.

Certainly with the nation's annual health care bill topping $2 trillion and a historic health reform debate underway, the many interest groups, individuals, unions and corporations in the health sector are active participants in political campaigns, lobbying and other forms of advocacy used to influence policymakers at every level of government.

From 1992 through 1994 and beyond, the topic of health care reform was fertile ground for campaign finance and lobbing stories. In the 2008 presidential and congressional elections, health care was a major focus of the campaigns. And despite health reform's recent setbacks, the debate over new legislation promises to continue long into 2010, once again providing opportunities for enterprising reporters to follow the money.

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to eliminate limits on corporations and unions from spending money on federal races will mean even more contributions to examine.

In this environment, the challenge for journalists is not just to identify good health care-related campaign finance stories, but to narrow the choices to a manageable level.

Go broad

One approach is to cover a broad landscape. Reporter Dan Eggen's story in the Washington Post, published in March 2009, used a study from a California advocacy group to outline donations to members of Congress from the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. The article served as a good place-setter for readers by examining two major health sectors in anticipation of the health reform debate. 

Eggen's story didn't examine other major players – the doctors, hospitals, nurses, device makers, unions, big business, small business, trial lawyers and more – now fully engaged in the debate. Still, he bit off a big chunk and the article did well to briefly touch on the money spent lobbying by the insurers and pharmaceutical companies.

A 2001 New York Times article by Leslie Wayne and Melody Peterson took a deep look at the issues that were a priority of the drug makers as well as their campaign donations and lobbying efforts.

These sorts of stories, whether on the national, state or local levels, can set the scene for upcoming legislative debate, monitor an ongoing issue or dissect what happened after a proposal is enacted or fails. Something to keep in mind is that the major players in politics are often more interested in defeating or limiting legislation that harms their interests than passing something that boosts those interests.

An article by Jordan Rau of the Los Angeles Times, published in September 2008, dissected California lawmakers' failure to pass a major overhaul of health care proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after his 2006 reelection. While the article did not examine the campaign money behind the failure of Schwarzenegger's proposal, it lays out legislative conflicts that provide a good map for examining how the money flowed.

Or go narrow

Sometimes, the best stories on money in politics are more narrowly drawn. A good example of this was a story by Bill Walsh of the Times-Picayune, published in June 1999, which examined the efforts by drug giant Schering-Plough Corp. to get legislation passed that would extend the patent protection on its blockbuster anti-allergy drug Claritin.

The pending loss of its patent on Claritin was such a major issue for Schering-Plough that the drug maker pulled out all the stops, as Charles R. Babcock reported in an October, 1999 Washington Post article. Babcock detailed the company's extensive efforts to get favorable legislation passed, which ranged from a well-timed $50,000 donation to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee headed by Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) the day he introduced the Claritin bill, to a $1 million donation to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's charitable foundation, to a company-provided jet for Sen. Orrin Hatch during his short-lived exploratory presidential campaign.

Babcock's article also highlights how money in politics often flows indirectly. Finding the well-timed donation, the charitable gifts (which have a side benefit of being tax-deductible) and the loan of a corporate jet distinguished the article and should be a reminder to reporters to look under the surface.

Carving out a small niche might involve looking at the members of key congressional committees through which a piece of legislation may pass or examining a handful of local representatives and senators to highlight a very focused issue (like Schering Plough's efforts to extend its Claritin patent).

As Babcock's article shows, there are many ways that money can be sent to benefit (and win support from) a politician. While campaign donations and lobbying are important, don't overlook other efforts by donors to win friends in high places.

When tracking direct campaign contributions, it is important to scrutinize both individual donors and the mega-fundraisers who collect dozens or hundreds of donations from others. Hospital administrators, insurance company executives, drug company CEOs are all potential donors, not just the company or its PAC. With individual donors, don't forget spouses, children, other relatives, employees, lawyers, accountants or any permutation that enables a donor to increase his or her total.

Go local

I know, most of us have heard it from management to keep coverage local, local, local. Well, whether you agree or disagree, the push for health care reform in Washington, D.C. is a great place to look for local stories.

Not only are your Congressional representatives involved in the debate,  companies, unions and nonprofits in your circulation area also are involved. And if they aren't directly working on the issue, local companies are part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Federation of Small Businesses, trade groups representing insurers, home health agencies, hospitals, and nursing homes. So what have they given to the members of Congress voting on the overhaul of health care in 2009 and 2010?

They might not have their own lobbyists in Washington or the state capital, but the companies involved in the health care business locally certainly are dues-paying members of trade groups that lobby on their behalf. And when those trade groups take on an issue, they ask their members to contribute campaign money to the politicians who support their positions. The same holds true for local unions.

This New York Times story  examined how states' attorney generals who are lobbying for state constitutional amendments to block federal health reform have received heavy lobbying. Blogger Igor Volsky did an analysis of contributions to state attorney generals from the interest groups involved the health care debate.

And there is certainly nothing wrong with using the efforts of other reports as a jumping off point for your own analysis. The Washington Post's analysis of donations to Senators involved with reform and another on the lobbying machine connected with the legislation could help guide your examination of folks from your state or congressional districts.

Even the New England Journal of  Medicine engaged with this study that reviews work done by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Go online for your data

Many online resources are available for reporters on the money trail.

A good place to start with any campaign finance story is with organizations that track and categorize campaign donations. Groups like the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on State Money and Politics are great jumping-off points. (Disclosure: I worked for CRP from 1990 to 1996. During that period, we advised the Institute on tracking campaign money.)

The Center for Responsive Politics has devised a method of categorizing campaign donations by industry that is useful and available for reporters. That can help when you go to the original source for your data, whether it's your county records office, the secretary of state's office, ethics commission, campaign records office, or, in the case of candidates for Congress and the White House, the Federal Election Commission.

The National Institute and CRP are good places to get the lay of the land, find lawmakers you want to examine and identify systematic ways of categorizing all campaign contributions you are tracking, not just a selected company, industry or economic sector.

The secretary of the Senate makes lobbying reports available online. The Internal Revenue Service has a site for so-called 527 committees, political groups that are not required to report to the FEC under federal law. You can find "990 reports," financial disclosures filed by charities and other nonprofits at Guidestar. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission provides online access to financial reports by public companies.

Campaign watchdog groups like Common Cause and Public Citizen regularly report on donations from health-care interests. At the state level, there are other such groups that track campaign donations, lobbying, or both. As with any policy or political story, the lobbyists, lawmakers and policymakers involved are often your best sources and guides.

While some of these groups will track the money for you, there is nothing like digging in for yourself. For one thing, reporters on the ground know the issues and the players better than anyone. Reporters' sources can guide them through the legislative maze looking for the amendment or earmark that is the linchpin of a great story.

Campaign finance stories are a great place to develop computer-assisted reporting skills. At the federal level and in most states and cities, campaign spending and donation data is often available electronically, in the form of downloadable databases.

Newsroom computers will have at least some basic spreadsheet or database programs like Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access. These programs are fairly easy to use and someone in the newsroom or outside can help you if you've never worked with such software before. The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, under the auspices of Investigative Reporters and Editors, offers online training resources.

And if the office computers don't have the software you need, I bet your home PC does. You don't have to be a computer whiz to do this stuff. I wasn't, but my work on campaign finance databases helped me learn to use database software. Now I use the skills I learned to work on much more complex health care datasets.

Another thing to think about: money in politics goes far beyond campaign contributions. As Kent Cooper, the former head of the FEC's public disclosure room, used to say, "There are many pockets in the politician's coat." Look for other places where money can flow, from the obvious travel perks, World Series tickets and jobs for family members to the more challenging donations to charities on whose board the politician or someone close to them sits. If you can conceive of it, you can be sure a smart politicians or lobbyist, businessman or union official has already gone there.

When I was research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, I often told reporters that a classic political story is not necessarily the best campaign finance story. In my opinion, the best campaign finance stories are ones that look in detail at one issue that involves a political battle. How the money flowed to influence a legislative outcome is only part of the story - describing what was at stake and the impact of the bill is also critical.

Besides, readers often are more interested in the policy than the politics behind it, at least in my experience. During the 2000 presidential campaign I was detached to cover the money. I wrote dozens of stories over nine months as part of the Philadelphia Inquirer's campaign team and felt great about the coverage.

After the campaign I returned to my health care beat and wrote a story on a developing battle between doctors, hospitals, insurers and trial lawyers over the rising costs of medical malpractice in Pennsylvania. That story generated more phone calls, emails and letters to the editor than nine months of campaign finance stories on the presidential campaign. It strikes me that people connect more deeply with health care than campaign finance.

But both are important matters of public interest. Combining the two might give you the best of both worlds. Feel free to send me a message through my ReportingonHealth profile if you have questions or if I can help get you started.