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Money Talks, and What It’s Saying May Harm the FDA

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Any way you look at it, $700 million is a lot of cash. That’s the amount that industries regulated by the FDA have spent since 2009 lobbying Congress and the Executive Branch. That investment is paying off as Congress now considers must-pass legislation that governs how the FDA uses science to evaluate prescription drugs and medical devices.

This is part of a series of posts on drug safety reform at FDA.

An analysis of lobbying and campaign finance reports released today shows that pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotechnology companies have spent more than $700 million lobbying Congress and the Executive Branch during a three-year period beginning in 2009. Since that year, these same special interests have given more than $6 million in political contributions to members of Congress on key committees working on the FDA bill.

For context, the oil and gas industry spent more than $467 million and the insurance industry spent almost $481 million during that same three-year period:

Lobbying Spending Comparison

This year, Congress has proposed changes that would harm the agency’s ability to protect public health and safety. It would be a lot easier for drug, device and biotech industries to get their products to market, in some cases with even less scrutiny than the FDA gives these products now.

This is very disappointing. I remember how hard UCS and our patient, consumer and public health coalition worked in 2007, when Congress passed the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act (FDAAA). That law strengthened the FDA, increased its transparency, and tightened its conflict-of-interest rules. In part because of these reforms, our recent survey of FDA scientists showed that FDA scientists have more optimism about their agency and feel less political and corporate pressure.

Why this change of heart? Part of it involves the economy. The political climate has changed, with more conservative, libertarian attitudes prevailing. There is a push to cut “job-killing regulations,” even when that comes at the cost of public health and safety, and when there is no evidence that regulations harm job creation. There is even greater pressure on Members of Congress where the medical device, pharmaceutical and biotech industries are major employers.

But certainly money also is helping to swing the tide. The $700 million that these industries spent on lobbying over the past three years advanced many of their public policy goals, ranging from the Obama health care law to trade, taxes and patents. But surely a major priority has been changes at the FDA that will benefit them.

Big money buys access and influence

What do all those millions buy? Public Citizen recently reported that during the third and fourth quarters of 2011, at least 225 lobbyists walked the halls of Congress and executive branch agencies, making the case for medical device companies. All those boots on the ground build relationships with the key congressional and executive branch players in Washington.

The same holds for campaign contributions. Donations to Members of Congress don’t buy votes. But they do buy access. It’s a lot easier to get the ear of a member of Congress when you’re at a fundraising cocktail party and you can just walk over and have a casual chat. The member of Congress can ensure that the chat is followed up with an in-depth discussion with his or her senior aides.

The money these companies give is smart money. It’s targeted where it has the greatest impact. As we report today, key members of one House subcommittee and one Senate committee received nearly $6.3 million in campaign contributions since 2009.

How do we counter this green tsunami of cash? Members of Congress listen to voters. If you want an FDA whose first priority is safe and effective medical products, let your lawmakers know how your own health and safety has been improved by safe drugs and medical devices—or how unsafe ones have harmed you.

A voter can outweigh a dollar, even in these cynical times.

Posted in: Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , ,

About the author: Celia Wexler is a senior Washington representative for the Scientific Integrity Initiative at UCS. A former award-winning journalist, Wexler is the author of Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis, published in 2012 by McFarland. At UCS, Wexler’s issue portfolio includes food and drug safety, protections for scientist whistleblowers, and government transparency and accountability. See Celia's full bio.

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4 Responses

  1. Carla says:

    I may not be able to pay people to lobby, but I do set my phone alarm to go off twice a week and I call my representatives office to make sure that my voice is heard. I think we can all take a moment and have our voices heard. United we shall stand.

    • Celia Wexler says:

      Carla, Thank you so much for your activism. I hope you can inspire your friends and family to do the same.

  2. Pat B says:

    That’s a crazy amount of money. I certainly can’t hire 225 lobbyists to walk the halls of Congress on my behalf. Thanks for exposing this, hope it gets some attention.

    • Celia Wexler says:

      We did get some media attention and a terrific editorial from the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

      Political cash wins over reforms

      Sunday, April 1, 2012

      Americans who follow the presidential primaries have surely absorbed the fact that super PACs, mainly funded by corporations and mega-rich donors, have effectively become the advertising arms of the candidates they favor. This runs entirely counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s premise, in its controversial 5-4 ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case, that it would be harmless and wrong to ban corporate funding for political advertising that is not directly coordinated with a specific candidate’s campaign.

      So much for ideological fairy tales. But that fallacious thinking about corporate money in politics is hardly the only flaw in the see-no-evil approach of weakened campaign and lobbying laws that let corporations run amuck against sensible restrictions on corporate cash.

      Consider the latest analysis of data on lobbying excess, compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It reveals that the pharmaceutical, medical device and biotechnology industries together spent more than $700 million for lobbying from 2009 to 2011.

      Overall, the three medical industries far outspent the oil and gas industries’ $467 million in the same three-year period, and the insurance industries’ $487 million.

      These are mind-boggling figures, especially for the medical industry’s pharma-biotech-and-device companies. They specifically targeted the Food and Drug Administration, which evaluates and monitors new drugs and devices for public safety. And they also targeted their spending and campaign donations on the lawmakers on sit on the panels and committees that approve their work.

      Small wonder the concerned scientists worry about current proposals to derail reforms for these industries approved by Congress just five years ago. Americans who wonder why drugs that killed people and new medical devices that failed ever got on the market have their answer: Unregulated lobbying and cash in politics.