Economy
7:38 am
Fri October 28, 2011

Hundreds Try To Influence The Supercommittee

Originally published on Fri October 28, 2011 2:56 pm

The deficit reduction committee, the so-called supercommittee, has less than a month to agree on massive spending cuts and deficit reduction. And so the race is on — not only for lawmakers but for interest groups, trade associations and corporations. An NPR analysis finds there are hundreds of them that want to influence the outcome.

This week the committee held a rare public hearing, only its third since starting work in September. It was also a rare opportunity to see lobbyists at work.

Most lobbying, just like much of the work of the supercommittee, happens out of public view.

But on Wednesday, lobbyists lined up early for a chance to sit in the hearing room, to take in the atmospherics, and maybe grab a few words with a staffer along the way.

"I like being up here," says Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding and a registered lobbyist. "It's sometimes good to be seen, wave the flag, pick up tidbits."

He represents 90 different education groups urging the supercommittee to avoid cuts to education.

"A: They theoretically have jurisdiction over everything. B: They've revealed nothing of what they're doing," Packer says.

Packer got in line an hour and a half before the hearing started. The queue wrapped around a corner and down a long hallway in the Hart Senate Office Building.

In all, NPR found, 619 different groups and corporations say they intend to lobby around the work of the supercommittee. All of them mentioned the supercommittee or the legislation that created it in their mandatory third-quarter lobbying disclosure forms. They range from the Air Transport Association to Wal-Mart. Also included: the American Hospital Association, Halliburton, General Motors and General Electric. The list goes on and on.

"Anytime you have something that may be a really fundamental change it's going to be a magnet for lobbyists," says Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a group that pushes for transparency in government. "It's going to draw them like honey draws flies."

Whether the committee does something or nothing, a whole lot of bottom lines are going to be affected. And that keeps the lobbying business humming.

"They're not really there looking out for the whole country by any means," Allison says. "They're looking out for this narrow interest. And the problem is that this is what usually happens in Washington. The special interests are a lot louder than the general public so they end up controlling the debate."

For people whose job it is to see their group's interests reflected in legislation, the supercommittee presents some unique challenges. If the committee fails to come up with a plan, it means automatic cuts. If it does agree on a plan, it skips the normal process and goes straight to an up or down vote in the House and Senate.

All this seems to make David Certner nervous. "These special fast-track, non-amendable rules apply to them," says Certner, the legislative policy director for AARP. "And there will be no basically debate in Congress with any opportunity to amend any of the changes that come out from this group of 12."

In addition to direct lobbying, AARP has a television ad in heavy rotation that's targeted at the supercommittee process.

The message in short: Please don't mess with Social Security, and if you want to make cuts from Medicare and Medicaid, bring down health care costs instead of making seniors pay more.

It's not just supercommittee members themselves who are in demand by lobbyists — their staffs are targets too. Earlier this week Mary Kingston emerged from a meeting with a staffer in the office of supercommittee member Xavier Becerra, a Democratic representative from Cailfornia.

"At least they have this information that now they can bring it to their boss, where we can't do that," Kingston says.

Kingston is a lobbyist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which is part of Packer's education coalition. Last week, the group sent a 13-page letter to supercommittee members outlining what would be hurt if education funding is cut. Now Kingston says they're going to every single office to follow up.

"We did hear from a few offices saying, 'Oh, we already got the letter. We don't need to meet with you,' " Kingston says. "But we pushed back and said, 'No, we feel so strongly about this that we really do want to come in and tell you personally and highlight some things.' "

A few minutes after she left, another group of people in dark suits headed into the office. No doubt they were there hoping to personally highlight some other things.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The congressional supercommittee has less than a month to reach a deal on deficit reduction. And so, the race is on, not only for lawmakers, but also for hundreds of special interests that want to influence the outcome. This week, the committee held a rare public hearing.

And as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, it was an opportunity to see lots of lobbyists at work.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Most lobbying, like much of the work of the supercommittee, happens out of public view. That is, unless there's a hearing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, folks, quick reminder before you go in. No food, no drinks, no...

KEITH: Lobbyists line for a chance to sit in the hearing room, to take in the atmospherics, and maybe grab a few words with a staffer along the way.

JOEL PACKER: I like, you know, being up here. Sometimes it's good to, you know, be seen, wave the flag, pick up tidbits.

KEITH: Joel Packer is executive director of the Committee for Education Funding and he's a registered lobbyist. He represents 90 different education groups urging the supercommittee to avoid cuts to education.

PACKER: A, they, you know, theoretically have jurisdiction over everything. B, they have revealed nothing of what they're doing.

KEITH: He got in line an hour and a half before the hearing started. The queue wraps around a corner and down a long hallway in the Hart Senate Office Building. In all, 619 different groups and corporations said they intend to lobby around the work of the supercommittee. All of them mentioned the supercommittee or the legislation that created it in their mandatory third-quarter lobbying disclosure forms.

They range from the Air Transport Association to Wal-Mart, the American Hospital Association, Halliburton, General Motors and General Electric. The list goes on and on and on. Bill Allison is editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a group that pushes for transparency in government.

BILL ALLISON: Anytime you have something that may be a really fundamental change, it is going to be a magnet for lobbyists and it's going to draw them like honey draws flies.

KEITH: Because whether the committee does something or nothing, a whole lot of bottom lines are going to be affected. And that keeps the lobbying business humming.

ALLISON: They're not really there looking out for the whole country by any means. They're looking out for this narrow interest. And the problem is, is they end up controlling the debate.

KEITH: For people whose job it is to see their group's interests reflected in legislation, the supercommittee presents some unique challenges. If the committee fails to come up with a plan, it means automatic cuts. If it does agree on a plan, it skips the normal process and goes straight to an up or down vote in the House or Senate. David Certner is the legislative policy director for AARP and this seems to make him nervous.

DAVID CERTNER: These, you know, special fast-track, non-amendable rules apply to them and there will be no basically debate in Congress with any opportunity to amend any of the changes that come out from this group of 12.

KEITH: In addition to direct lobbying, AARP has a television ad in heavy rotation that's targeted at the supercommittee process.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We are 50 million seniors who've earned our benefits and you will be hearing from us today and on Election Day.

KEITH: The message, in short, is please don't mess with Social Security. And if you have to make cuts from Medicare and Medicaid, bring down health care costs. Don't make seniors pay more. The next day, in another hallway, Mary Kingston is just coming out of a meeting with a staffer in supercommittee member Xavier Becerra's office.

MARY KINGSTON: At least they have this information that now they can bring it to their boss, where we can't do that.

KEITH: Kingston is a lobbyist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which is part of Packer's education coalition. Last week, the group sent a 13-page letter to supercommittee members, outlining what would be hurt if education funding is cut. Now, Kingston says, they're going to every single office to follow up.

KINGSTON: We did hear from a few offices saying, oh, we already got the letter. We don't need to meet with you. But we pushed back and said, no, we feel so strongly about this that we really do want to come in and tell you personally and highlight some things.

KEITH: A few minutes after she leaves, another group of people in dark suits heads into the office, no doubt hoping to personally highlight some other things.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.