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.