WASHINGTON - As the Obama administration and Democrats wrangled over the timing, shape and cost of health care overhaul efforts during the first half of the year, more than half the $1.1 million in campaign contributions the Democratic Party's Blue Dog Coalition received came from the pharmaceutical, health care and health insurance industries, according to watchdog organizations.
The amount outstrips contributions to other congressional political action committees during the same period, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog organization. The Blue Dogs, a group of fiscally conservative lawmakers, successfully delayed the vote on health care overhaul proposals until the fall.
"The business community realizes that (the Blue Dogs) are the linchpin and will become much more so as time goes on," former Mississippi congressman turned lobbyist Mike Parker told the organization's researchers.
On average, Blue Dog Democrats net $62,650 more from the health sector than other Democrats, while hospitals and nursing homes also favor them, giving, respectively, $5,680 and $5,550 more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks the influence of money in politics.
The contributions came at a time when health care and pharmaceutical companies were mounting a campaign against a government-run public health insurance option, fearing cost controls and an impact on business. The Blue Dogs' windfall also came at a time when the 52-member coalition flexed its muscle with both the White House and the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives as an increasingly influential bloc in the health care overhaul debate.
At the same time, many Blue Dogs were also rubbing shoulders with health care and insurance industry executives and their lobbyists at fundraising breakfasts and cocktail receptions that cost upward of $1,000 a plate, according to public information compiled by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which advocates greater government transparency. Since 2008, more than half the Blue Dogs have either attended health care industry fundraising receptions or similar functions co-sponsored by lobbyists representing the health care and insurance industries.
In June, as Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who heads the coalition's task force on health care, publicly expressed the Blue Dogs' misgivings about the Democratic leadership's efforts, the former pharmacy owner was feted at a series of health care industry receptions. Ross has received nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from the insurance and health care industries over his five-term career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Calls to Ross' office weren't returned.
That month, the American Medical Association, which lobbies for health care providers and is one of the top contributors to Blue Dogs, came out against a public option.
House Republicans, however, tend to collect more than Democrats - including Blue Dogs - from insurers, health professionals and the broader health sector, the Center for Responsive Politics found.
Many of the Blue Dogs hail from districts that are conservative-leaning and have sizable numbers of Republican voters. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on government transparency, Blue Dogs often take positions that are favorable to the health care industry.
During the 2008 cycle, individual members of the Blue Dog Coalition raised a combined $6.24 million from the health sector. The average contribution to a Blue Dog Democrat in the 2008 election cycle was slightly higher - $122,370 - than the average contribution to a non-coalition Democratic lawmaker - $116,748, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
During the spring, the Blue Dog Coalition, which got its name when former Rep. Pete Geren, a Texas Democrat, said moderates had been "choked blue" by "extreme" Democrats from the left, met with the Obama administration and House leadership to discuss concerns about the tone and direction of health care efforts.
The lawmakers, many of whom hail from the South and Midwest, pushed "rural health equity" with higher reimbursement rates for physicians and hospitals in areas of the country that struggle to recruit and retain health care providers.
The Blue Dogs were also very vocal in their subsequent complaints that House leadership wasn't including the group in the legislation drafting process. Earlier this year, 45 Blue Dogs sent a terse letter to the Democratic chairmen of the Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees, stating that the group felt minimized in the process, which is "especially concerning in light of the collaborative approach being taken by our Senate colleagues."
The coalition also sent the Democratic House leadership a letter stressing they would favor a public option only if industry reforms and greater competition don't lead to lower costs.