An Investment in Their Future

Karen Tumulty and Micheal Scherer of Time have a very important article out looking at the influence of the drug industry in  the American political process as our current debate over healthcare unfolds.

To begin with the sheer number of the drug industry's registered lobbyists is mind-boggling. They number 1,228, or 2.3 for every member of Congress. And the drug industry's campaign contributions to current members of the Henry Waxman chaired Energy and Commerce committee have totaled $2.6 million over the past three years. But what's most stunning is this: in the first six months of this year alone, drug and biotech companies and their trade associations have spent more than $110 million -- that's $609,000 a day -- to influence our elected representatives.

Judging by the euphoria, that investment in their future seems to be paying off.

The return on that investment has been considerable, both in the House and in the Senate. "We've done very well," says lobbyist Jim Greenwood, a former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who was a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and now heads the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "We carried a majority of the Democrats and a majority of the Republicans in each of the committees, and by very clear margins."

The Time article is also remarkable in that it sheds light on competing interests of different healthcare-related lobbies and on the growing influence of the biotech industry. The Time piece looks at the battle over how much legal protection to give the manufacturers of a class of drug products known as biologics, drugs produced from living matter. Biologics are very expensive to produce and the biotech industry argued that they should be afforded 12 years of "data protection." That's seven years longer than the five that traditional pharmaceutical developers currently receive.

On the other side of the coin were the generic drug producers who were allied with the AARP, labor unions, insurance companies, health-maintenance organizations and health-reform advocacy groups, each for various reasons but generally under the realm of cost containment.

It should come as no surprise that the biotech lobbying group, the  Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which spent $7.6 million in its lobbying efforts in 2008 has so far come out ahead of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association which only spent $1.9 million in lobbying Congress in 2008. It should also be noted that it is Anna Eshoo, a liberal Democrat from bio-tech rich Palo Alto, who is leading the charge to protect the biotech industry. It should also be noted that the largest contributor to Representative Eshoo's campaigns is the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Makes you wonder whose side she is on?

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Ensign could be in deep trouble

In June, Senator John Ensign of Nevada became the luckiest adulterer in American politics when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford didn't hike the Appalachian Trail. Ensign had been involved with campaign staffer Cynthia Hampton, who was married to Senate staffer Doug Hampton, but Sanford's bizarre pronouncements about his "love story" and Argentinian "soulmate" wiped Ensign off the media's agenda. Even the news that Ensign's parents gave the Hampton family $96,000 wasn't enough to get the Nevada senator back in the spotlight. His approval rating took a big hit and continued to slide during the summer, but he had reason to hope this scandal would fade before he faced re-election in 2012.

Unfortunately for him, New York Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and Eric Lipton have been researching Ensign's efforts to help Doug Hampton find work upon leaving his Senate office. First, Ensign "contacted a small circle of political and corporate supporters back home in Nevada" to see whether anyone had work for Hampton.

In the coming months, the senator arranged for Mr. Hampton to join a political consulting firm and lined up several donors as his lobbying clients, according to interviews, e-mail messages and other records. Mr. Ensign and his staff then repeatedly intervened on the companies' behalf with federal agencies, often after urging from Mr. Hampton. [...]

The senator declined to be interviewed. But his office said that the inquiries he had made about work for Mr. Hampton were "only recommendation calls" and that the senator's actions in support of his former aide's clients were "not at the behest of Mr. Hampton."

Mr. Hampton and his wife, in a series of interviews, provided a detailed account of Mr. Ensign's efforts to mitigate the fallout from the affair, which ruptured two families that had been the closest of friends.

Mr. Hampton said he and Mr. Ensign were aware of the lobbying restriction but chose to ignore it. He recounted how the senator helped him find clients and ticked off several steps Mr. Ensign took to assist them with their agendas in Washington, activities confirmed by federal officials and executives with the businesses.

"The only way the clients could get what John was essentially promising them -- which was access -- was if I still had a way to work with his office," Mr. Hampton said. "And John knew that."

There's much more detail on the lobbying in the New York Times article. The Times also reported, "The Justice Department and the Senate Ethics Committee are expected to conduct preliminary inquiries into whether Senator John Ensign violated federal law or ethics rules" by letting or even encouraging Doug Hampton to lobby his office.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't seem eager to defend Ensign, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:

Asked if Mr. Ensign could be an effective senator in light of ethical questions raised by the New York Times Friday, Mr. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said only: "Sen. Ensign continues to serve. He's a member of the Finance Committee, been active in the discussions there." [...]

At a news conference on health care, Mr. McConnell was asked several times about Mr. Ensign but declined to take a firm position. "I really don't have any observations to make about the Ensign matter," he said repeatedly.

The Senate Ethics Committee has been looking into the Ensign matter since a complaint was filed on June 24 by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. Friday's revelations give the committee additional allegations to investigate.

Ensign's no longer just another Republican hypocrite on family values. I see lots of legal fees and in all likelihood no re-election campaign in his future.

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A One-Two Punch of Contribution Clusters

An article published in the UK Guardian provides an overview of the lobbying effort conducted by insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms and hospitals dedicated to ensuring that healthcare reform proposals don't threaten their profits. All told, these industry and interest groups have spent $380 million trying to influence healthcare legislation through lobbying, advertising and in direct political contributions to members of Congress.

The Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics have teamed up on a collaborative investigative project that has uncovered never-before-seen webs of campaign contributions from outside lobbyists and their clients, who are all important players in the health care reform, to key members of Congress.

Their investigation identified outside lobbyists who donated to the same members of Congress as their clients. Their findings strongly suggest that special interest giving is enhanced by the K Street contributors they hire. Call it a one-two punch aimed at TKOing a public option.

Senator Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the author of one of the  health care reform bills now being debated in the Senate, was the biggest beneficiaries of this one-two punch from the lobbyists and their clients. From January 2007 through June 2009, Senator Baucus collected contributions from 37 outside lobbyists representing PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry's chief trade association, and 36 lobbyists who listed drug maker Amgen Inc. as their client. Overall Senator Baucus has received $1.5 million from the health sector towards his re-election coffers.

In all, 11 major health and insurance firms had their contributions to Senator Baucus boosted through extra donations from 10 or more of their outside lobbyists. You can see all these curious clusters of cash at Open Secrets.

Beyond the noxious effect of all that cash, the health industry has permeated the process in other ways. At Senator Baucus's side, helping to draft the wording of the Baucuscare, was Liz Fowler, a Senate committee counsel whose previous position was  as Vice President of Public Policy and External Affairs of the country's largest health insurer in terms of membership, WellPoint. Ms. Fowler worked at WellPoint from May 2006 through February 2008, according to the company. She previously worked for Senator Baucus from 2001 to 2005. Something about a revolving door comes to mind.

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Don't let the revolving door hit you on the way out

That was fast:

It used to be that lawmakers were coy about any ideas they had about heading for K Street, waiting until their terms ended before announcing they were beginning a more lucrative career.

But in recent years, members of Congress planning to become lobbyists have not been able to wait. In fact, when Florida Republican Mel Martinez this week accepted a position with the mega-lobbying and law firm DLA Piper -- less than two weeks after resigning from the Senate -- it brought to five the number of former lawmakers since 2007 who have abandoned their constituents midterm and almost immediately resurfaced with lobbying firms, according to data provided by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The other four are Democrat Al Wynn, who lost the 2008 primary to Donna Edwards in MD-04, and Republicans Dennis Hastert (IL-14), Richard Baker (LA-06) and Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Martinez met with folks from DLA before he formally stepped down from the Senate but stressed that the firm extended "no financial terms, no offer, no details" to Martinez until after he resigned Sept. 9.

"We didn't have any discussions with him until he decided to leave the Senate, and we didn't conduct any negotiations with him of any sort until he had left the Senate," said John Merrigan, a DLA partner. [...]

Martinez, who is barred from lobbying his former colleagues for two years, will advise clients on government affairs, litigation, financial services, real estate, energy, defense, infrastructure development and other matters, according to a DLA press release announcing his arrival. [...]

According to the firm, DLA has an office in Tampa, and Martinez will spend the bulk of his time working from Florida.

Sounds like more fun than being in the 40-member Republican Senate caucus, and it's certainly a lot more lucrative.

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Learning how to lobby Congress

Tonight I attended an Organizing for America phonebank.  Together with other Massachusetts volunteers, I called voters in Maine to encourage them to call Senators Snowe and Collins and ask them to vote for a public option.

The event had all the trappings of a election-focused phonebank, except that our end goal was a bit different, and our failure rate (measured in refusals, and judging only from my own limited experience) was a bit higher.  As I dialed, it occurred to me that effectively, we were learning to do something that the progressive movement knows very little about - lobbying Congress via mass mobilization.  I thought I'd put down some notes about the lessons that I hope we'll learn from this effort, and my long-term view for this new style of governance.

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