National Public Radio has posted an interesting, possibly provocative, but certainly confusing, item on its website.
Itâ€™s a photograph taken late last month during the first Congressional hearings on the trillion-dollar healthcare reform legislation. Actually, itâ€™s not just a photograph but a panoramic, four-frame, interactive feature complete with cutesy rollover icons. More importantly, it shows not the 22 members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions who were the presumptive stars of the occasion, but the audience.
Who are these 200 or so people sufficiently interested in the issue at hand to show up in Room 106 at the Dirksen Senate Office Building?
The answer is revealed as your cursor rolls over an icon: These pleasantly innocuous faces in this predominantly female, modestly diverse standing-room-only crowd are, as anyone versed in inside-the-Beltway business would know, lobbyists of one stripe or another. Or, as NPR more politely refers to them in its headline, â€œhealthcare stakeholders.â€
The feature’s gimmick is asking readers to identify familiar faces via email for posting on the site. For example, one icon reads: â€œKatie Pahner, Health Policy Source, Firmâ€™s 2008 Lobbying Income: $1.3 million.â€ Unfortunately, we’re left in the dark about which companies, professional organizations, advocacy groups, etc., pay Pahnerâ€™s firmâ€™s fees.
By the end of the day, the icons were few in numberâ€”only a handful of IDs had been made. That might be because to Washington outsiders, not only the faces but the very beings and doings of most lobbyists are nondescript to a remarkable degree. They are peddlers of â€œinfluenceâ€â€”the most elusive of commoditiesâ€”who, if the mainstream media is to be believed, are forever holding closed-door meetings with politicians, meetings about which they have â€œno commentâ€ afterward. And they are invariably singled out for blame when one or another piece of legislation or reform comes to dust.
This may help explain the subtle but unmistakable hostility to NPRâ€™s “spot the lobbyist” game. After all, asking for positive identifications is generally the purview of the police department. The implication is that something shady is taking place in 160 Dirksen Senate Office Building and that lobbyistsâ€”excuse me, healthcare stakeholdersâ€”are, if not perpetrators, at least bystanders. But this game of shining light on the shadiness may make them feel uncharacteristically a little like the victims.
Beginning to attach specific faces and names to the multifarious influence may be the point of this NPR exercise. Greater transparency, in turn, may make the Capitol Hill reportersâ€™ job easierâ€”it may even lead to greater accountability of, and accessibility to, the Katie Pahners of the world. That would be a good thing.
But here’s the confusing part: The lobbyists with the most influence are generally so well known that they require no identification. On Monday the Washington Post ran a hard-hitting investigative piece about the enormous number of new lobbyists hired by insurers, hospitals, medical groups, and drugmakers to lean on the pols during the healthcare debates into which we are about to be plunged. The vast majority of these 350 fresh-faced influence peddlers are either former elected officials or former members of their staff.
The title of this important piece? Familiar Players in Health Bill Lobbying. The prime example of what the Post refers to as the “revolving door” between Capitol Hill and K Street? Billy Tauzin, head of PhRMA.