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

March 29, 2012
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

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.