Pharma-Funded Democrats Are Opposing a Crucial Drug-Pricing Plan

The “moderate” Democrats in Congress are on the march again, this time in alleged high dudgeon over the urgently needed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. After a hopeful start, a clutch of “moderates” hauled out their pick-axes and slowed the whole process to a crawl. It is looking increasingly likely that whatever emerges as Manchin-worthy will be about as potent as a handful of sand. Their newest target: The historic effort to upgrade Medicare, and change the utterly foolish way drug prices are negotiated with the pharmaceutical industry.

“Moderate” and “centrist” — the favorite words of corporate media types, all of whom apparently got the same memo some years ago: “Don’t call them conservative.” When was the last time you read the phrase “conservative Democrat” in a mainstream publication? Do a Google search for the phrase and you get a white paper by Texas Christian University professor Adam J. Schiffer titled, “I’m Not That Liberal: Explaining Conservative Democratic Identification.” It was published in 2000.

Some 21 years later, and the term “conservative Democrat” has been all but scourged from the political lexicon. That needs to change. “These people are conservatives — period, end of file — who hide behind the ‘moderate’ label even as they undermine policies Democrats have hewed to for half a century,” I wrote back in March of 2019. “If they vote with conservatives, they are conservatives.”

Case in point: A trio of House Democrats have announced their opposition to a key element of Biden’s budget. Representatives Scott Peters, Kathleen Rice and Kurt Schrader do not like the idea of empowering Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly with drug companies, even though most Democrats and just about everyone else thinks it’s a bully idea. The pharmaceutical industry at large dislikes the $600+ billion in savings these policies will create over ten years, because that money will be carved out of its outrageous profits.

“While Democrats’ drug-pricing plan can still advance to a floor vote in the House, the three members’ opposition puts the broader reconciliation package at risk and may force leaders to compromise on its provisions,” reports The Washington Post. “Democrats cannot lose another vote for the drug-price plan if it is to be included in their massive social spending package, known as the Build Back Better Act, and other centrist members of the party have signaled they have their own sets of concerns.”

That savings is at the core of the Biden budget plan, a huge slice of “how we pay for it.” Losing it, or even a substantial portion of it, would be a terrible blow to legislation that also seeks to address the menace of climate change and other profoundly pressing matters. The world knows Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition stems from the fact that he bleeds coal slurry whenever he cuts himself shaving, but why these three? What would motivate them to derail such an important bill?

Representative Schrader’s top industry donors were “Pharmaceuticals/Health Care Industry” and “Health Professionals,” according to the most recent report by OpenSecrets. Insurance giant Blue Cross/Blue Shield was his largest single donor. Taken in total, the combined donations from those two health care industries amounted to $308,145.

Representative Peters’s top industry donor was “Pharmaceuticals/Health Care Industry,” according to the most recent report by OpenSecrets. His top individual donors were Eli Lilly and Company, Pfizer Inc., Amgen Inc., Merck & Co. Inc. and Gilead Sciences. The combined donations from these health care corporations amounted to $96,050.

Representative Rice is a bit of a mystery on this score. According to OpenSecrets, lobbyists, insurance companies and real estate interests dominate her top donors; nary a dollar of “health care” or Big Pharma money is found. Furthermore, a full 90 percent of her constituents support the exact sort of health care reform the Biden bill seeks to enact. Rice is a former prosecutor who ran a tough-on-crime campaign, and has been in the House since 2014. Perhaps this is her announcement that she’s open for dealings with one of the wealthiest and most powerful industries in the world, although in these strange times, her motives are anyone’s guess.

Speaking of powerful, Pfizer Inc. — one of Representative Peters’s top donors — dropped a veiled threat at the beginning of the month that was impossible to misinterpret:

In meetings with lawmakers, lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry have issued warnings about the reconciliation package now moving through both chambers of Congress that is set to include language allowing Medicare to negotiate the price of some drugs, which could generate billions of dollars in savings.

In those conversations, K Street insiders say, lobbyists have explicitly mentioned that the fight against the coronavirus will almost certainly extend beyond the current surge of the Delta variant. And they’re arguing that now isn’t the time to hit the industry with new regulations or taxes, particularly in light of its successful efforts to swiftly develop vaccines for the virus.

The companies claim that fundamental changes to their bottom line — in addition to the Medicare provision, the reconciliation bill will likely raise corporate tax rate significantly, as high as 28 percent (a jump of 7 percentage points) — will threaten its current investments in research and development at a historically critical juncture.

Translation: “Hit us with new regulations or taxes, and we might ‘accidentally’ lose the formula for those precious vaccines. Booster shots? Oh, jeez, see, because our profits were lowered 0.002 percent by your new rules, it’s gonna be a year at least until those suckers are ready.”

Simpler translation: “Nice vaccines you got there. Be a shame if something happened to them.”

Stop calling the lawmakers who allow themselves to be ruled by these corporations “moderates” or “centrists.” Only conservatives — The Party of “Life,” remember — play hardball with such ruthless abandon.

A bunch of these conservative Democrats in the House are new, swept into office in 2018 and 2020 thanks in no small part to the reverse coattails of Donald Trump. They are why Nancy Pelosi has a big hammer on her desk, and why she has defended these right-leaners so assiduously. The two Trump impeachments were theater, not actual legal actions, because Pelosi wanted to protect her coterie of conservatives who make the difference between Democrats being the majority and the minority.

I get the argument, I really do… but the House Democratic Caucus has become like a firehouse where a segment of the firefighters are running around lighting fires instead of helping to put them out. It’s an apt analogy, because the country and swaths of the world are actually fa-chrissakes burning, and these “moderates” are flicking lit matches at the tinder, right alongside their conservative Republican pals.

The only way around this is to render these people moot by expanding the House Democratic majority. A pile of conservative-governed states are working hammer and tong to prevent this with brutal new voting restrictions, but they are not the only states in the union, and they sure all aren’t where most of the people are.

The great big mega-populated state of New York is rolling out some interesting plans along these lines. As the state prepares for the redistricting process, state-level Democrats are looking to use their super-majorities to capture the process and erase as many as five Republican seats from the map.

“Under the most aggressive scenarios,” reports The New York Times, “Democrats could emerge from 2022’s midterm elections with control of as many as 23 of New York’s 26 House seats in an all-out effort to prop up their chances of retaining control of Congress. For the first redistricting cycle in decades, Democrats control the Legislature and governor’s office, giving them the freedom to reshape districts without having to compromise with Republicans, who long held a lock on the State Senate.”

It would be something indeed if other Democratically controlled states followed suit. In the meantime, remember: They are conservative Democrats.

Not “moderates.”

Not “centrists.”

Conservatives.

Language matters. Please use it correctly.