LOBBYING: HOW THE WEALTHY WIELD POWER

Wealthy individuals and their companies have inordinate influence on our supposedly democratic policy making through the reinforcing combination of lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door of personnel going back and forth between the private and public sectors. This post presents two examples of how lobbying has successfully blocked policies with strong public support and benefits for the public. My next post will focus on how to control lobbying and curb its use as a tool for undue influence. (See my previous post for background on lobbying.)

Drug price controls are one example of how lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door all come into play when corporate America and its wealthy executives and investors want to influence policy making. The costs of prescription drugs have been increasing dramatically and growing numbers of people can’t afford their drugs. In the first half of 2019, prices of 3,400 drugs surged an average of 10.5%, which is five times the rate of inflation. The cost of insulin, an old drug that is essential for many diabetics, has tripled in price over the last ten years for no reason other than greed. A third of uninsured Americans report they cannot afford their prescribed drugs and, as a result, millions of people are not taking needed medications.

With strong public support, Congress and the President have been considering ways to control and reduce drug prices. In response, the pharmaceutical industry is ramping up its lobbying and campaign spending. It is launching an advertising campaign opposing such steps and trying to blame others for high drug prices. In addition, courtesy of the revolving door, the pharmaceutical industry has one of its own on the inside in President Trump’s cabinet. Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicare and Medicaid among other things, was the president of a branch of drug maker Eli Lilly. Eli Lilly faced a class action lawsuit over its tripling of the price of insulin while Azar worked there. Eli Lilly has spent $4.2 million on lobbying so far in 2019 and has hired a former assistant to President G.W. Bush, who went through the revolving door to lobbying, as one of its lobbyists. In addition, Joe Grogan, a former lobbyist for Gilead Sciences, a drug company, is President Trump’s top policy adviser.

The pharmaceutical industry association has spent $16.3 million on lobbying so far this year and more than 70% of its lobbyists are revolving door participants, having previously worked for the government. It has spent $3.5 million on social media ads over the last 15 months, which typically blame others for high drug prices. It spends millions through affiliated advocacy groups and on election campaigns, including $2.5 million in 2017 to a pro-Trump dark money political group (i.e., one that hides the identity of its donors). Individuals and entities in the pharmaceutical industry have given millions to Congresspeople already this year, including $135,486 to Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and $205,100 to Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader and the biggest recipient of pharmaceutical industry contributions so far this year. [1]

The  pharmaceutical industry has been very successful in blocking attempts to rein in drug prices . Even though the public identifies drug prices as the number one issue it wants Congress to do something about, no meaningful relevant legislation has been passed in the ten months this Congress has been in session. For example, Senator Cornyn (R-TX) launched tough attacks in a Senate hearing on AbbVie, a pharmaceutical company, and its CEO for filing more than 100 patents for its arthritis drug Humira. This “patent thicketing” as it’s called, is a way to prevent competition from generic drugs. Cornyn filed legislation to address this problem but lobbying and campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry convinced him to eliminate his own proposal that would have given the Federal Trade Commission the power to address the abuse of patent laws. Similarly, numerous other proposals to address drug prices and patenting issues have been dropped or dramatically weakened, and none have been passed. And the pharmaceutical industry was able to overturn in court the Trump administration’s recently issued rule that would have required drug prices to be disclosed in TV ads. [2]

Even when policies have been passed into law, the business lobbyists are experts at killing or weakening their implementation. In these efforts, they count on assistance from their friends in Congress (both elected members and staff) and from allies in the executive branch (who often have entered through the revolving door).

For example, in October 2010, the Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a “fiduciary rule” as part of the implementation of existing law. It would have required investment advisers for retirement savings accounts to act as fiduciaries, meaning that when providing investment advice they would have to put the best interests of their clients first, ahead of benefits for themselves, such as commissions, fees, etc. Some advisers have been recommending that their clients make investments that paid the advisers high fees and commissions but were not the best options for the clients and, in some cases, were clearly inappropriate investments for retirement savings.

Because this fiduciary rule could potentially reduce the incomes of financial advisers and the profits of their employers in the financial industry, the corporate lobbyists undertook an extensive and unrelenting campaign to kill the rule. First, during the public comment period on the proposed regulation, the financial industry and the Chamber of Commerce literally buried the DOL with hundreds of written comments and lots of testimony at public hearings. Because agencies are required by law to respond to every concern presented in public comments, a deluge of comments takes significant time and resources from the sponsoring agency. This delays the rule making process and can kill a proposed rule.

After 11 months of work, the DOL withdrew the proposed rule but said it would try to implement something similar in the future. The financial industry lobbyists continued their campaign against the fiduciary rule, trying to dissuade DOL from proposing a similar rule. In June 2013, a lobbyist drafted a letter urging Obama’s DOL to delay a second attempt and got 32 members of Congress from both parties to sign it. Nonetheless, the DOL persisted and re-proposed the rule in February 2015. The Wall Street lobbyists again geared up to fight the rule and submitted thousands of comments.

The DOL and its supporters persisted and got the rule through the process. However, the delay of five years meant that the rule couldn’t be fully implemented until after President Trump was elected.

After another $3 million of lobbying by the financial industry, the Trump administration delayed implementing the fiduciary rule and then its Department of Justice refused to defend it when the financial industry sued to block the rule from going into effect. So, after 7 years of work by DOL to protect workers’ retirement savings, the financial industry succeeded in killing this broadly supported, common-sense protection. Then, rubbing salt in the wound, President Trump appointed Eugene Scalia (son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), the corporate lawyer and lobbyist who filed the lawsuit to block the fiduciary rule, as the Secretary of the DOL. [3]

This same pattern of industry lobbyists blocking implementation of laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the President happens repeatedly. For example, it happened when the Environmental Protection Agency tried to regulate methane emissions. And it happened when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau tried to regulate payday lenders who rip off desperate borrowers with incredibly high interest rates and fees that often lock low-income individuals into an inescapable debt trap.

Companies and their wealthy executives and investors work relentlessly through lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door to block or weaken policy changes that would benefit workers and the public. They attack legislation as it goes through Congress. They work to get the President to oppose or veto proposed laws. Failing that, they work to block or weaken the implementation of laws, including the issuing of relevant rules and regulations. If they can’t block the issuing of rules or regulations, they sue in court to block them from going into effect. At best, all of this delays policy changes that would benefit workers and the public by years; often it succeeds in killing them completely.

My next post will discuss how to control lobbying and curb its use as a tool for undue influence.

[1]      Stella Yu, Y., 9/25/19, “Big pharma invests millions as Congress readies drug pricing bills,” Open Secrets, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/09/big-pharma-invests-millions-drug-pricing-bills/)

[2]      Florko, N., & Facher, L., 7/22/19, “How Big Pharma keeps winning in Washington,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Warren, E., 10/2/19, “Excessive lobbying tax proposal,” Team Warren (https://medium.com/@teamwarren/excessive-lobbying-tax-fca7cc86a7e5)

2 comments

  1. John A Lippitt · · Reply

    You are right. Our mainstream media are all big corporations and they act like big corporations – driven by profit. Furthermore, they are dependent on their corporate advertisers. Therefore, they do what sells attention to them and to their advertisers. I like your characterization of this as focusing attention on shiny objects and hot button issues. They want controversy, conflict, and shock value, the truth and meaningful information be damned.

  2. When congress set things up so Medicare could not negotiate drug prices I was sure that was too far and voters would react. But they really do control the narrative and keep voters staring at shinny objects and hot button issues like email servers.

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