Behind the closed doors of Washington lobbyists

(CBS News) Members of Congress are widely regarded as the nation's shakers and movers. But behind them, unseen, are a powerful force of lobbyists shaping everything from the national dialogue to the actual laws Americans will have to follow. Sharyl Attkisson gives us a rare and exclusive peek behind the sometimes shadowy lobbyists' curtain in Washington, D.C.:

"The Catholic Church has lobbyists," said Professor James Thurber. "The Boy Scouts have lobbyists. The AFL-CIO has lobbyists. Apple does. Everybody has a lobbyist."

No one knows the business of Washington lobbying better than Thurber. He helped write a report on lobbying reform for the American Bar Association, and he teaches a course to aspiring lobbyists at American University.

His definition of a lobbyist: "Someone who advocates for someone else and is getting paid for it."

The fingerprints of lobbyists are all over daily life. They defeated plans to cap credit card interest rates.

They made pizza count as a vegetable on school lunch menus.

They wrote a lot of the health care reform law.

Thurber estimates $9 billion is spent every year on lobbying and related advocacy. A top lobbyist can make millions.

He says the influence business is the third largest business in Washington, D.C., after government and tourism. "I think there's probably 100,000 people in the industry - not lobbyists specifically, but in the industry, supporting all of that in Washington," Thurber said.

And what do clients expect from their lobbyist? We asked Gary Lauer, CEO of a $150 million California firm called eHealth Insurance, a web site that lets customers shop for health insurance from 180 companies.

"I was interested in getting some lobbyists a) who had high credibility, and b) who could frankly get some doors open so that we could explain what the situation was and what we think the remedy would be," Lauer said.

Specifically, Lauer was seeking to change the rules of health care reform so that low income Americans can use government subsidies to buy insurance through companies like eHealth.

Lobbyist Lanny Davis agreed to represent eHealth. Attkisson asked Davis what he considered "the good, the bad and the ugly" of lobbying in Washington.

"The good is you meet interesting people, and certainly if it's a cause you believe in, you go to Members of Congress and you can be passionate and truthful and do the opposite of what most people think lobbyists do," Davis said. "The bad is that most people think you're sleazy and you're doing something against the public interest."

Davis founded Purple Nation Solutions, a PR firm that does lobbying. He's a former White House counsel to President Clinton, and a friend to Hillary.

His political connections date back to Democrat Bobby Kennedy, and extend well past Republican George W. Bush. (They were fraternity brothers in college.)

Davis sees his role as an educator, teaching Members of Congress about his clients' issues.

"The most important function a lobbyist provides is to provide facts and information," he said.

But first, they have to get their foot in the door.

The business of lobbying is shrouded in secrecy. We were given rare access to the inner workings - including a networking event for lobbyists and their guests.

Our cameras were allowed along on actual lobby visits, being conducted most any time Congress is in session.

Davis is such a familiar face in the halls of the Capitol, Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack greets him with a kiss.

"Lobbyists do trade on - if you want to use the 'bad' word - trade on friendships, but that's part of life," Davis said. "Do I ever ask a friend to do something contrary to their values, to their judgments, on the facts? Never."

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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