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Lobbyists still run Washington It was supposed to change when Obama took office. But D.C.'s inf

• Salon/Tom Dispatch/Digg
 And the biggest spenders in healthcare lobbying aren't doling out their largesse to just anyone. Take Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, leader of the bipartisan "Gang of Six" spearheading the Finance Committee's healthcare negotiations, and architect of that committee's much anticipated healthcare legislation. He's also one of the top five recipients of health industry-related money in Congress, pocketing $2.9 million in his career. For his 2008 reelection campaign, the unassuming Baucus took in $1.2 million from health industries, $690,050 of which came from health-related political action committees, the most for any Washington politician. Not that the six-term senator needed it: He steamrolled his opponent, an 85-year-old serial also-ran who'd lost 14 elections in 44 years and campaigned on a platform to turn the U.S. into a parliamentary system, by 48 percentage points.
Nor has the White House withstood the pressure of the deep-pocketed health industries. Before the August congressional recess, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius broke new ground, declaring that a public option was "not the essential element" of a healthcare overhaul. By then, the Obama administration had already made its "secret," backroom deal with top drug company representatives. In exchange for early support for its reform agenda, the White House agreed to limit how much (via drug price negotiations and industry rebates) Big Pharma would have to decrease the cost of its products, now borne by taxpayers, to $80 billion over 10 years. The deal was a coup -- for the drug makers. After all, the total sales of the top five U.S. pharmaceutical companies alone totaled almost $660 billion in the past half decade, more than eight times the agreed-upon cost savings.
Healthcare may be the most striking example of what's been going on in Obama-era Washington, but this sort of lobbying onslaught actually extends to Obama's whole agenda. Almost 2,400 lobbyists are, for instance, working on financial industry-related issues like the White House's proposed financial-regulation and consumer-protection reforms. Influential players, among them the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, have already spent a staggering $222 million on lobbying in just the first half of 2009. The Chamber of Commerce, in particular, ranks first this year in finance-related lobbying (total spending: $26.2 million; total number of lobbyists employed: 167). A senior director for the Chamber of Commerce, which vehemently opposes a White House-proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency that would consolidate authority over credit cards, mortgages, loans and other consumer products into one centralized regulator, pulled no punches in a comment offered to Reuters: "We are working to kill the bill."

His actions, though, have been less reassuring. While committing his administration to the Afghan war, the president has appeared unwilling to fight defense boondoggles down the line, as he did in the case of the F-22, and he's been less than forceful in defending sorely needed financial reforms -- like those for the $592 billion over-the-counter derivatives market -- in the face of Wall Street's lobbying clout.

Once again, this isn't entirely surprising: For all the talk of the flood of small, individual donations to Obama's historic 2008 election campaign, its coffers overflowed with money from financial powerhouses like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase and corporations like General Electric, Google and Microsoft. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama still ranks near the top among all recipients when it comes to contributions from the health, defense, financial and energy industries.

The same goes for Obama's staff. In an interview with, Bill Moyers put it vividly. "I think Rahm Emanuel, who is a clever politician, understands that the money for Obama's reelection would come primarily from the health industry, the drug industry and Wall Street, and so he is a corporate Democrat who is destined, determined that there would be something in this legislation," Moyers asserted, that will appease those powerful interests.

If the president's sprawling agenda has revealed anything, it's the extent to which private industries and their foot soldiers on K Street and Capitol Hill influence -- and in some cases dictate -- American policymaking. Right now, about 12,500 federally registered lobbyists make their trade in Washington, but believe it or not, they're only a small slice of the pie. James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, tells TomDispatch that the number of people in the political advocacy business who aren't registered -- the astroturfers, public relations firms, and strategy groups, among others -- number anywhere from 90,000 to 120,000. Conservatively speaking, that adds up to 168 influence peddlers for every member of Congress.

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