The Democrats shepherding Pelosi’s drug pricing bill have taken plenty of campaign cash from pharma

Lev Facher

A version of this story appeared in this week’s D.C. Diagnosis, STAT’s weekly newsletter about the politics and policy of health and medicine. Sign up here to receive it in your inbox.

WASHINGTON — The fate of Nancy Pelosi’s sweeping drug pricing bill rests in the hands of lawmakers who received more campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry than almost all other Democrats, according to a STAT review of campaign finance records.

Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, received $111,500 in contributions from pharmaceutical industry political action committees in the 2018 election cycle — fifth-most of any lawmaker, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, received $98,500, good for ninth-most.

Pallone and Neal are two of the Pelosi bill’s three co-sponsors. It is their committees that focused most heavily on health care issues and will likely consider amendments to the legislation before it is brought up for a vote on the House floor.

The contributions came even as Democrats, led by Pelosi, railed against drug companies in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms. Pallone, Neal, and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Cal.) — the chair of the Energy and Commerce panel’s health subcommittee — have each continued to accept contributions from PACs affiliated with companies including Pfizer, Amgen, and Novartis throughout 2019.

Read more: Our 9 biggest questions about Nancy Pelosi’s drug pricing bill

While the contributions, in many ways, are standard practice for pharmaceutical companies and the health industry more broadly, they also speak to the drug industry’s continued influence on Capitol Hill.

“We will continue to hold members of Congress accountable when they take money from pharma and do the drug industry’s bidding,” Ben Wakana, the executive director of the advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, said in a statement. “If members do the right thing and fight to lower drug prices for all Americans, we are happy to tell their constituents that they’re doing a good job.”

Despite the unlikelihood of Pelosi’s proposal gaining any traction in the Republican-controlled Senate, drug pricing experts have cautioned that the pharmaceutical industry shouldn’t celebrate too soon, citing President Trump’s unpredictability on the issue of drug pricing.

Trump last week said on Twitter it was “great to see” Pelosi’s legislation, though his administration has already endorsed a bipartisan package before the Senate Finance Committee.

Democratic lawmakers’ continued willingness to accept pharmaceutical industry campaign contributions also comes despite a climate in which voters have come to dislike the pharmaceutical industry more than any other, according to a recent Gallup poll. Voters, nonetheless, trust Democrats more than Republicans on health care by a 17-point margin, according to another recent survey.

Patients for Affordable Drugs Now last year even sank $500,000 into ads attacking Eshoo for receiving drug industry money. (She received $78,500 in pharmaceutical PAC contributions in the 2018 cycle, 20th-most of all members of Congress.)

“Anna Eshoo’s record on drug prices is terrible, and the reason why is obvious,” David Mitchell, founder of Patients For Affordable Drugs, said in a statement when the ads launched in August 2018. “She’s taken enormous sums of money from drug corporations, and she does their bidding in Washington.”

It is typical for lobbyists and corporate interests to invest heavily in funding key lawmakers who sit atop powerful committees. The top and third-largest recipients of pharmaceutical PAC cash in 2018 were Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Kevin Brady (R-Texas) — respectively, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and Ways and Means Committee until Democrats regained the House majority in last year’s election.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the House’s top Republican, ranked fourth in drug industry PAC contributions in 2018. Pelosi, however, was not among Congress’s 20 highest recipients of pharmaceutical PAC money.

The industry funding, however, has become more of a political liability in recent years — even for lawmakers who represent states where the biopharmaceutical industry is a major economic driver, like Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) or Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Many Democrats running for office in 2018, and numerous candidates for president in 2020, have pledged to eschew corporate money altogether, as well as individual donations from lobbyists or corporate executives.

Read more: Democrats still have questions about Nancy Pelosi’s drug pricing plan

Pallone also hails from pharma-heavy New Jersey, while Neal represents the biotech hotbed of Massachusetts. Eshoo also represents a Silicon Valley district in California dotted with biomedical researchers and startup incubators, a short drive from Bay Area drug giants like Gilead and Genentech.

Neal, however, has begun to receive flak for the industry funds. His challenger in the 2020 Democratic primary — Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke, Mass. — has made corporate money in politics a theme of his campaign’s early stages.

Given the current anti-pharma climate, it’s easy to forget that lawmakers have been taking substantial sums from the pharmaceutical industry — as well as health insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, pharmacist associations, hospital groups, medical device companies, and drug distributors — for decades.

Pharmaceutical industry PACs contributed $10.3 million to candidates in 2018 and $11.8 million in 2016, when Trump was elected, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.

A Pallone spokesman declined to comment, and a spokesman for Eshoo’s congressional office did not respond to STAT’s questions.

In a statement, Neal’s campaign office said the congressman was “proud to deliver on a long standing promise and introduce last week’s landmark legislation that put the industry on notice and will bring down the cost of drug prices.”