WASHINGTON — During much of the last decade, David Castagnetti served as chief of staff for Montana Sen. Max Baucus, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a central figure in the current health care reform debate.
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Castagnetti, 48, advised Baucus on transportation, trade, tax and technology issues during his time with the senator in the 1990s. He also assisted Baucus with his work on the Finance and Public Works committees.
Roughly 10 years ago, Castagnetti left Capitol Hill for “K Street,” the downtown D.C. corridor where many of the city’s thousands of lobbyists work. He is a managing partner at Mehlman, Vogel, Castagnetti Inc.
Despite his tax and trade-centric background, this year Castagnetti has worked for at least 20 clients with health care interests, comprising roughly half of his client portfolio.
According to congressional disclosure reports filed by his firm, this year Castagnetti has lobbied on issues for Merck, Procter and Gamble, AstraZeneca, the Medicare Cost Contractors Alliance and America’s Health Insurance Plans, among others. Many of these clients signed on with his firm in 2006 and 2007, when the Democratic Party seized power in Congress and Baucus assumed the lead role on the Finance Committee.
An investigation of lobbying records conducted by the Medill News Service in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics and the Tribune Washington Bureau shows that Castagnetti is one of at least 15 lobbyists who were once congressional chiefs of staff for prominent lawmakers or committees currently embroiled in the health care reform debate.
No fewer than 375 former staff members of pivotal health care lawmakers or committees worked as lobbyists in 2008 and 2009. And nearly three quarters (74%) of them worked for clients with health care interests.
Castagnetti said clients come to him for his previous role in policymaking and his understanding of Washington’s political machinations.
“I have a bunch of experience on the Hill,” Castagnetti said in a telephone interview. “I’ve worked for Congressman [Ed] Markey, I’ve worked for [ Rep.]Norm Mineta. I have had a stint in the Kerry [presidential] campaign as well. So I have a lot of experience on the Hill.”
While Castagnetti has no obvious health care expertise, stakeholders are willing to pay huge sums of money for assistance from the former man behind the man, and for the access such a man can provide.
And although it might come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the close ties between public servants and lobbyists, career paths like Castagnettii’s are as much the rule as the exception in Washington.
Former congressional staffers in demand for health care lobbying
The Medill-CRP-Tribune analysis of lobbying records underscores the volume of traffic passing through Washington’s “revolving door” – that ever-expanding thoroughfare linking lawmakers and their staff members to the lobbying industry.
Among those findings:
- No fewer than 16 former members of Congress now lobby for clients with health care interests. And at least 278 former congressional staffers or members now lobby for clients with health care interests.
- Of those former staffers or members turned lobbyists who now lobby for clients with health interests, 14worked for Steny Hoyer, the greatest number for any single member of Congress included in the database.
- Of all the staffers turned lobbyists who gave money to federal candidates, party committees or leadership PACs in the current and 2008 election cycles, the top two donors were both ex-Baucus staffers: Onetime Staff Director Jeff Forbes contributed $178,822, and Castagnetti contributed $157,750.
- Nearly 650 companies or groups with health care interests hired former congressional staffers or members as lobbyists in 2008 and 2009. In total, those clients spent nearly $1.5 billion on lobbying in 2008 and 2009.
- The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) was both the greatest spender on lobbying and the largest employer among those groups with health care interests. PhRMA spent more than $40 million on lobbying in 2008 and 2009, and employed no fewer than 26 former congressional staffers or members during that same period.
While it’s clear that lobbying is a common career choice for former staff members familiar with the inner workings of the lawmaking process and players, the effect of these relationships on the legislative process is not clear.
The purpose of this database reporting project was to explain how the health care debate is shaped by a Washington custom — former congressional staffers and congressmen who take jobs with lobbying firms, giving their clients special access to Capitol Hill.
The project is a joint effort of Medill News Service, a program of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism; the Tribune Washington Bureau; and the Center for Responsive Politics.
Reporters for Medill News Service compiled a list of former Capitol Hill staffers and members of Congress who registered as lobbyists in 2008 or 2009 as the health care debate was unfolding, using data from the Center for Responsive Politics and other sources. To be listed, the ex-staffers must have worked for one of a select list of lawmakers or congressional committees within the past 20 years. The lawmakers and congressional committees were chosen due to their notable role in the ongoing health care reform debate.
How We Got What We’ve Got
A team of reporters collected the information and created a list of former staffers who had worked for the five major House and Senate committees involved in shaping the health care reform bills, the top Democrat and Republican on each committee and the top leadership of Congress. Some of the former staffers had worked for more than one of the lawmakers or committees selected. A handful of former congressmen were also discovered among the lobbyists. The list of staffers was taken both from the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org, a nonprofit watchdog organization, and Legistorm.com, a nonpartisan Web site that holds congressional staff salary information.
The Medill reporting team then determined whether the ex-staffers and congressmen were registered as lobbyists in 2008 or 2009 by comparing the list of former staffers against a lobbying database created by the Center for Responsive Politics.
If the ex-staffers registered to lobby in 2008 or 2009, the following information was collected in a spreadsheet: names of the lobbyists’ clients, the amount those clients spent on overall lobbying, whether the client was in a health-related industry, whether the client used an outside lobbying firm or an in-house lobbyist, the total federal campaign contributions of the individual lobbyists and the total federal campaign contributions of the clients. The campaign contributions included donations from the clients’ political action committees — and, for those clients that had PACS, from their employees who made individual contributions — to all candidates, leadership PACs and party committees in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.
Most of the information was available on either OpenSecrets.org or Legistorm.com. Any material not found on those Web sites was taken from other public records or official Web sites, such as a client’s site or the congressional site of a member of Congress. The Center for Responsive Politics provided the lobbying and campaign contributions data.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the general public is often unfamiliar with the granular details of the lobbying process.
“What’s important is that they understand the role lobbyists have in Washington,” she said.
What We Don’t Have
The list of staffers-turned-lobbyists for the selected members of Congress and congressional committees is not exhaustive. There could be missing names due to incomplete disclosure reports or because the methodology was limited to using the names listed on two Web sites: OpenSecrets.org and Legistorm.com. However, every effort was taken to make the list as complete and accurate as possible.
Lobbying disclosure forms filed by lobbyists do not require that they disclose the specific members of Congress they lobbied, nor the specific bill or amendment being discussed (though some will voluntarily offer this information). So it cannot be said definitely from the data alone that a lobbyist had access to a specific member of Congress due to previous work relationships.
“I don’t think they’re venal necessarily, and what they do is certainly not illegal,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow and political authority at the Brookings Institution. “What they really provide – for all of this attention and money – is access. They give their client a chance to make his or her case. That, generally, is what it boils down to.”
And for access to people as influential as Baucus, interested parties are happy to employ a David Castagnetti for a healthy fee.
“If the sense of the arrangement is that I can get my information – my position – before a senator, I sure would want to hire the person who I think has the best chance of doing that, and I’m willing to pay a premium for that,” Hess said.
While Castagnetti declined to respond to questions regarding the specific ways in which he lobbies on behalf of his clients, he defended his professional involvement with so many health care-related parties by asserting that other members of his team are experienced with the ins and outs of health care issues and legislation.
“You pull a team of people together, and you try to represent the client as best you can,” Castagnetti said. “We have a mix of people who understand the substance, and we have a mix of people who understand the process and politics.”
Walking a fine line:
The rules of the lobbying game
With health care encompassing a large part of the economy, influence plays a big role, said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a think-tank that advocates for open government and transparency.
“The main reason that special interests hire people that work in Congress frequently is that they want access,” Allison said.
“Lobbyists will make a fortune making sure the interests of their clients are protected in this [health care] bill,” he explained, adding that there is “huge amount of money at stake.”
“A lot of this is close clubbiness,” Allison said. “Once an insider, always an insider.”
David Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said the role of the lobbyist is often misunderstood by the general public.
“People have a misconception that lobbyists are all these old men with cigarettes in their mouths passing out money,” he said. “It is not like that at all.”
The job of a lobbyist is to educate and inform, he said. A lobbyists’ reputation rests on his credibility. It would be foolish for a lobbyist to do anything to harm that reputation.
“If you lie, you are no longer welcome,” he said.
To assist in regulation, the Government Accountability Office, a federal investigative agency, is bound by law under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 to annually review compliance with lobbying disclosure requirements.
The Lobbying Reform Act states that former members of the House cannot make lobbying contacts for one year with members or employees of either chamber of Congress. Former senators cannot make lobbying contacts for two years with any member or employee of either chamber of Congress.
Last year, the GAO found that 7 percent, at minimum, of all lobbyist disclosures “list lobbying activity that did not actually happen.” Six percent of all lobbyist disclosures “erroneously report the amount of income or expenses for lobbying activity.”
All sides agree that the vast amount of knowledge that lobbyists accumulate is what makes them a vital part of the way things work in Washington.
“The more and more the federal government gets involved in health care, the greater the premium on inside access is,” said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The cost of not engaging very aggressively in that process rises dramatically.”
A growth industry
When considering the business of political lobbying, Hess asserted that the ability of well-funded parties to buy access to influential lawmakers is not, in itself, illicit.
As in any profession, the Brookings scholar said, among the ranks of lobbyists “there are honorable people and dishonorable people, and we have examples of both.”
“By and large, lobbyists perform a service,” he said. “You find very often that the people that are now lobbyists are the most experienced people in a particular area.”
Hess defended the role lobbyists play in the policymaking process and cautioned that painting the entire lobbying industry with the brush of indiscretion would be wrong. But he also said that certain regulatory aspects of campaign contributions and lobbying could, and probably should, be taken a step further.
“The question of contributing to political campaigns, unfortunately, I think has truly gotten out of hand,” Hess said. “It starts to sort of smell. And that is one way to buy access, simply to contribute money.”
But as the power and scope of government has grown, Hess said, the rise of the business of politics was probably inevitable. And, consequently, the reach and influence of the lobbying industry will continue to expand.
An ever expanding federal government brings more “supplicants” to the table, Hess said. “With every new government program, you can be sure that there’s a new set of lobbyists.”
This story was reported and written by Markham Heid and Kiran Sood. The database was reported and produced by all the graduate students in the fall quarter of the Washington Program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. These Medill News Service reporters were assisted with data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics. The student reporters are: Shahzad Chaudhary, Rachel Claytor, Jessica Harbin, Markham Heid, Kellen Henry, Alex Keefe, Bridget Macdonald, Kristin Maiorano, Kat McCullough, Michelle Minkoff, Jane Park, Kathryn Rogers, Diane Rusignola, Kiran Sood, Alexandra Thomas and Kristian Weatherspoon.