(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."
Today, they're paying a call on Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah.
"I try to make sure that my door is open to everyone, and that we get the right information so we can make the best decisions," Fattah said.
There are two components to successful lobbying: Access, and money - donations from lobbyists and their clients to Members of Congress. While it's illegal for Members to cast a vote in exchange for campaign contributions (that would be bribery), there's plenty of walking right up to the line.
"I think that when people give campaign contributions, they are not there simply to improve the workings of democracy. They're there to buy access," Thurber said.
"Everybody in Washington who's a lobbyist gives campaign contributions," said Davis. "Almost everybody that I know as a lobbyist. Money itself is not bad. The question [is], is somebody honest or going to be influenced by the money?"
But Professor Thurber says the relationship between lobbyist and Congress is sealed by one guiding principal: "The iron law of reciprocity - meaning, 'I'll help you if you'll help me' - is ingrained in politics. It's ingrained on the Hill. . . . That's perfectly legal. And it's non-transparent, frequently."
The campaign donations and fundraisers often take place out of public view. Earlier this year, we took hidden cameras to a swank, Key Largo resort to observe as lobbyists and other big donors paid thousands of dollars to spend the weekend with Republican Congressmen, mostly freshmen . . . on the golf course . . . charter fishing on a boat named "Good Life" . . . over drinks at the resort bar.
"These freshmen, about half of them said they were aligned with the Tea Party movement, had high ideals about changing Washington, the debt and the deficit, and tax reform and everything, but also about campaign money," said Thurber. "Well, they realized that campaigns are very expensive. And if you want to win, you've got to bring in a lot of money."
Efforts to regulate lobbying date back to 1876, when the House first required lobbyists to register with the Clerk.
In the 21st century, the lobbying industry has become a revolving door for lawmakers. They retire from Congress . . . and make more money returning as lobbyists, often getting special access with their former colleagues on Capitol Hill.
A study by the watchdog group Public Citizen found that 43 percent of Members of Congress who left office between 1998 and mid-2005 went on to register as lobbyists.
In 2007, Thurber advised then-Senator Obama, who championed sweeping lobby reforms. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff had just gone to prison for cheating clients and bribing Congress. Lawmakers passed new reforms that required strict public disclosure of lobbying activities, and limited the gifts and trips lobbyists can buy for Members of Congress.
"Big money and lobbyists were clearly drowning out the aspirations of the American people," he said in Manchester, N.H., in June 2007. "I will launch the most sweeping ethics reform in history to make the White House the people's house, and send the Washington lobbyists back to K Street."
Today, Thurber has some surprising words about President Obama: "President Obama in his campaign in 2008 said he was going to change the way Washington works. He hasn't. He's failed. Because if you want to get a piece of legislation like his health care piece through, you HAVE to bring in big interests. He did. He brought in AARP, he brought in the American Hospital Association. He brought in the AMA in a coalition to support that."
And increasingly, lobbyists aren't just influencing legislation. They help write it.
Even Davis recalls being put off by that facet of a lobbyists' role several years ago: "There were 40 lobbyists in the room and we were arguing - as if we were elected to something - about the placement of a comma. I kid you not! The placement of that comma had a huge (I won't explain why, but trust me), it had a huge importance. And I thought to myself, 'If the American people were really here and we were on C-Span, there would be blood in the streets!'"
In the end, eHealth's lobbying was successful in changing the rules. Low income Americans will be allowed to use their subsidies to buy insurance on eHealth.
"Did you have to write a proposed regulation to hand them?" Attkisson asked.
"We've written a lot," Lauer replied. "At the end of the day, the regulation didn't use all of our language, and that was fine, but it caught the essence of this, and it included some things that these people in health and human services thought were important, which we agreed with . . .
"I would say that the process here is far from elegant. The process here involves influence."
"Democracy is a messy way of governing yourself, and there are imperfections that people vote for bills that they don't read and they vote for words that lobbyists have written," said Davis. "But it is the system that's better than any other system, and we just have to make it better, in my view, by having more transparency."