How many self-described "free" trade lawmakers in Congress can the drug industry make head to the floor of the Senate and bare their corporate protectionist corruption for all to see? Based on a key vote yesterday, the answer appears to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 49 (including 14 Democrats) - well over what's necessary to control the federal government.
That's right, as the Associated Press reports, "In a triumph for the pharmaceutical industry, the Senate killed a drive to allow consumers to buy prescription drugs from abroad at a significant savings from domestic prices." The legislation to allow imports of FDA-approved medicines from other industrialized nations (a practice used by other industrialized nations themselves) was sponsored by North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) and has long been supported by the vast majority of the American public in opinion polls. Yet right there on the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday afternoon, 49 senators voted through a poison pill amendment, invalidating Dorgan's legislation and protecting drug industry profiteering. The sheer disregard for the truth and for consistency when it came to both the policy and politics of this vote was, in a word, stunning.
Policy-wise, the poison pill amendment to ask the White House to certify the safety of drug imports seems at first glance to be utterly forthright - a testament to the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying genius. Yet, the only reason to include such certification requirements is to give the pharmaceutical industry-owned White House the power to block cheaper medicines from entering the U.S. market, not to protect U.S. consumers. Why? Because the federal government has already testified to Congress that it has absolutely no evidence that FDA-approved medicines from countries like Canada are unsafe. Oh, and by the way, if drugs from those industrialized countries were such a danger, why haven't we been hearing about a wave of deaths in Europe and Canada? Here's an excerpt from Hostile Takeover to better illustrate these points:
"As Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in pushing to legalize imports, 'My first response to that [safety argument] is show me the dead Canadians. Where are the dead Canadians?'...The answer is, they don't exist. As Knight-Ridder reported in 2003, 'FDA officials can't name a single American who's been injured or killed by drugs bought from licensed Canadian pharmacies.' Similarly, Canada's health ministry reported that it 'does not have any information that would indicate that any Americans have become ill or have died as a result of taking prescription medications purchased from Canada." It is why, under pressure, President Bush suddenly forgot his politically-motivated opposition to drug imports and said in 2004 the United States would try to buy flu vaccine from Canada to deal with a domestic shortage - because there really is no safety concern. Even some drug executives are now coming clean about the lie. Dr. Peter Rost, the Vice President of Pfizer who oversees the company's European operations, first blew the whistle in 2004. 'The safety issue is a made-up story,' Rost said. "The real concern about safety is about people who do not take drugs because they cannot afford it.'"
Why is it a made up story? Because pharmaceutical companies already produce many of their medicines in factories outside of the United States. These companies are allowed to import these drugs themselves, but American wholesalers or consumers themselves are not allowed to do the same. Put another way, importation is already happening in this country safely - so we know it can be done safely. It's just that American consumers are not allowed to benefit from such importation with lower prices.
The politics of this vote are just as hypocritical. On the very day the New York Times publishes as story about the divide in the Democratic Party over lobbyist-written "free" trade agreements, you'll notice that those voting for the poison pill represent the bloc of Senators that is usually responsible for passing these pacts - the market fundamentalists who tell Americans that we must prevent any restrictions on international commerce, even those that protect the basic safety and well-being of our citizens. Yet, at the mere whiff of drug industry campaign cash, these "free" traders suddenly become ultra-protectionists, saying no, no - we can't allow FDA-approved medicines into the United States from other industrialized nations. Apparently, these "free" traders believe our trade pacts should be freely exposing Americans to, say, poison-tainted pet foods, diseased vegetables that create Hepatitis outbreaks, and even potentially Mad Cow-infested beef, but not to the lower-priced medicines that would be needed to treat the illnesses such unregulated imports cause. These people still haven't answered the very simple question Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) asked in 2005: "Why allow bad beef to enter the U.S. from Canada and not allow safe medicine?"
The answer, of course, is simple: Because in 2006, corporate agribusiness gave lawmakers $44 million in campaign contributions to pose as a "free" traders when doing so supports their efforts to destroy domestic family farming, and the drug industry kicked in another $19 million to get the same lawmakers to be the corporate protectionists they really are, whether they are voting to ban importation or to create price-inflating patent protections in our trade policies.
To understand the power of the drug industry over Congress and how a vote like this can be engineered even in a Democratic Senate, we can look past the macro numbers about its lobbying army in Washington, and to an individual example right here in Montana - a state with a 500+ mile long U.S.-Canada border. You may recall that in 2000, Schweitzer ran a spirited campaign for U.S. Senate against Republican Conrad Burns. You may also recall that the primary way this farmer who had never run for office before came as close as he did to winning the race against a two-term Republican senator in a Republican state had much to do with the fact that he led bus trips to Canada to pressure Congress to allow drug importation (attracting millions of dollars in attack ads against him by drug company front groups). This is, in short, a state that knows about drug importation and wants its political leaders to support the legislation as a way to lower medicine prices.
Nonetheless, Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D) was one of those senators voting for the poison pill that kills the drug importation legislation. He cast his vote, mind you, less than a week after holding an widely publicized Economic Summit in Butte where he invited the captains of industry to deliver speech after speech after speech stressing the value of allowing unbridled international commerce and free trade. How could this happen? Take a look at this excerpt from The Nation magazine about Baucus's support for the Bush Medicare bill for some clues:
"During the debate over whether to add a $400 billion privately run prescription-drug plan to Medicare, his former chief of staff, David Castagnetti, and legislative aide, Scott Olsen, were part of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's $8 million lobbying effort. Shortly after the legislation--written largely by the pharmaceutical industry--passed, Baucus's top staffer on the Finance Committee, Jeff Forbes, left to open his own lobbying shop, with clients including PhRMA, the drug maker Amgen and the American Health Care Association. These companies have in turn donated generously to Baucus; almost $700,000 between 2001 and 2006 from the healthcare industry and pharmaceutical lobby."
This is how it works in the Beltway - a place where the K Street's tentacles reach not just for the Republicans, but for top Democrats as well. That bipartisan corruption makes sure that populist lawmakers like Dorgan, who work overtime to successfully attract peel-off Republican support for initiatives like drug importation, are undermined at every step. And the result is that on every issue - from drug prices to energy prices to job security to wages - Washington's war on the middle class continues.
© 2007 David Sirota