The otherwise hidden lucrative relationship between the U.S. Congress and big pharma 

 By Coby Hobbs

The District of Columbia defines lobbying as “means [of] communicating directly with any official in the legislative or executive branch of the District government with the purpose of influencing any legislative action or an administrative decision.”

This action usually entails the flow of money from corporations to congress via political action committees (PACs) as it is illegal in Washington for corporations to donate directly to candidates. 

Although, some state campaign financing laws vary, and in those cases direct contributions from corporations to lawmakers are commonplace.

Nevertheless, outside of Washington, and the infamous “K Street”, this definition seems to be, for the most part, interchangeable with local governments. But how extensive are lobbying efforts? And how many congressional members accept donations from the corporations in the industry for which they write legislation?

“Bribery in a suit” 

With these questions in mind, some suggest that lobbying is simply “bribery in a suit” or that political decision-making is highly influenced by external campaign and foundation contributions. 

Even so, data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) presents evidence of the generous donations made by the giants of the drug industry to lawmakers. 

Before the 2020 election well over two-thirds of congress cashed a check from the pharmaceutical industry, equating to 102 senators and 442 house representatives. Pfizer’s PAC alone donated to 228 lawmakers during the election cycle, and Amgen’s PAC came close in its efforts by contributing to the funding of 218 lawmakers’ campaigns. 

Who are the U.S. politicians involved?

These numbers were closely matched during the 2021-2022 election cycle as the FEC released the donation data last month. As the infographic below shows, we know who has received money from the industry.

Congress Members Who Received Big Pharma Cash  

A total of 223 Democrats and 193 Republicans received donations from pharmaceutical manufacturing PACs totalling a collective contribution that exceeded $2 million, with Democrats taking most of the cake with their share of $1,364,799 and the Republicans with $1,150,372.

Additionally, some members of congress received heavier donations than their colleagues as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) accepted a total of $21,500 from the lobbyists, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) at $50,000, and California’s own Scott Peters (D) received the most bountiful gift of $63,900. 

Top Big Pharma Receivers

While lobbying efforts from the pharmaceutical industry reach far and wide on the spectrum of political distinction, some top recipients, who are not particularly powerful lawmakers, receive remarkable sums of donations.

Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who holds the chair seat of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, an important panel that oversees a large portion of healthcare legislation before Congress, accepted $20,500 from big pharma lobbyists this election cycle.

Other committee members such as Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR) are also among the top receivers of pharmaceutical industry money in congress for the 2021-2022 election cycle.

These donation patterns are somewhat similar for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC), which oversees intellectual property law. According to the FEC database, majority seat holder Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), along with minority seat holder, and North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis (R), collected sums from the industry’s lobbyists that exceeded the $10,000 threshold.

Thom Tillis (R-NC) speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Thom Tillis” by Gage Skidmore is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Thom Tillis (R-NC) speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

These industry beneficiaries have held their seat on the committee going back to 2019 in which both authored a bill that expanded patent protection and intellectual property rights within the drug industry. 

The industry practices allowed by this legislation have recently faced mainstream criticism as the Covid-19 pandemic illumined vaccine disparities due to the expanded patent protection as there was a global scramble to vaccinate populations with the hope of offsetting any new virus variants. 

The strict intellectual property rights granted to the pharmaceutical manufacturers, like Pfizer and Moderna, who developed the Covid-19 vaccine, presented challenges for other nations to booster global vaccine manufacturing and immunization. 

Some nations such as South Africa and India have proposed that the World Trade Organization (WTO) wave the intellectual property rights of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

This potential waiver has been deadlocked since 2020, but a new counterproposal has presented a possible opportunity for compromise. 

What could be done instead

Moreover, following the lockdown hiatus, the new democrat majority house, and president-elect, the Build Back Better Plan was soon introduced to the floor with an original $3.5 trillion budget.

This bill includes infrastructure and education investment, combative climate change efforts, and healthcare reform comprising reduced or negotiated prescription drug prices. 

As of now, the U.S. market generates around $148 billion in prescription drug sales revenue for the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. 

During last year’s Lower Drug Costs Now Act hearings, also known as H.R.3., Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Representative Scott Peters (D-CA) originally opposed the ambitious act to reduce prescription drug prices for Americans.

As shown in the Top Big Pharma Receivers graph, Peters was the top receiver of pharmaceutical donations this election cycle with Menendez also a leading contender, sitting in third place with a nearly $50K check from the industry’s lobbyists. 

Both Menendez and Peters said the donation contributions to their campaigns from the pharmaceutical industry did not influence their decision to oppose the bill. 

spokesperson of Peters said that his opposition was not due to lobbying efforts but that the bill would limit jobs and innovation within the industry. 

Political contributions from pharmaceutical-funded PACs are a regular occurrence during election cycles.

The possibly influential dollars of the industry often reach the majority of congress in some way or another, but this common lobbying practice begs the question if such donations sway lawmakers’ decisions in favor of big pharma rather than the American people?

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