Lobbyists are professional advocates whose job it is to influence political decisions. According to the law, a lobbyist cannot pay a politician directly to secure a vote. However, the industry has found several ways of working around this restriction. One way is to organize a fundraiser for the candidate they want to influence.1
The fundraiser helps support the candidate’s reelection and term in office and the lobbyist can talk with a candidate about their legislative concerns. Lobbyists can spend big money to influence decisions that ultimately yield much more money.
For example, one yearlong analysis by the Sunlight Foundation2found that for every dollar spent influencing politicians, corporations received $760 from the government. This is a 76,000% return on their investment. The Sunlight Foundation examined 14 million records to reach this result. According to the Foundation, in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that political donors do not receive anything in return for their donations.3
In the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the justices wrote that corporate money spent on federal elections “do[es] not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."4 STAT analyzed data gathered in 2020 and discovered many health care decisions are in the hands of pharmaceutical companies that are making big bucks.
Your Health Care Decision in the Hands of Big Pharma
In a series titled “Prescription Politics,” STAT5 analyzed lobbyist expenditures in the 2020 elections at the state and federal levels. The data showed that the top pharmaceutical lobbyist in 2020 was Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). They earned this spot having spent $25.9 million on lobbying efforts.6
Going back for a minute to the research from the Sunlight Foundation, if their estimation holds true and you do the math, the $25.9 million investment by PhRMA may ultimately net the industry $19.6 billion. One area where many states have fought the pharmaceutical industry is over the high price of drugs.
Lawmakers in Oregon have tried several strategies to lower drug prices and nearly every proposal has failed. When STAT looked at campaign contributions, they found two-thirds of the state legislature in Oregon had cashed at least one contribution check from the drug industry.
An analysis of other states found more dramatic results in Louisiana, California and Illinois. Documentation showed 84.4% of lawmakers in Louisiana, 81.7% in California and 76.3% in Illinois had accepted and cashed a check from the pharmaceutical industry.7
During the 2020 election campaign, the pharmaceutical industry wrote 10,000 checks that totaled more than $9 million. The STAT analysis found in 2019 and 2020, 2,467 state legislators nationwide had used Big Pharma cash to support their campaigns.
While many of the state campaign contributions were relatively small, other state and federal lawmakers cashed much larger checks as the industry focused on donating to legislators in key positions:8,9
- Chad Mayes — Mayes is the vice chair on the Committee on Health for the California State Assembly10 and he accepted $79,600.
- Tim Knopp — Vice chair of the Oregon Senate health care committee, Knopp accepted $25,000. This was the largest contribution from a single trade group, PhRMA.
- Richard Hudson — U.S. Rep. Hudson, R-N.C., holds a seat on the Energy and Health subcommittee,11 which oversees health care legislation. He accepted $139,500. According to Open Secrets,12 his donations from pharmaceutical and health industries totaled $275,980.
- Thom Tillis — U.S. Sen. Tillis, R-N.C., holds a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee13 that oversees intellectual property law. He wrote a bill to expand the industry's patent protection. He accepted $471,489 in pharmaceutical and health industry contributions.14
- Anna Eshoo — Rep. Eshoo, D-Calif., chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and has taken more money over her career than any other member of the House in California, totaling more than $1.6 million.15
These are just a few of the state and federal legislators who are taking money from the drug industry to fund their campaigns, which gives the industry a front row seat to influence the lawmaker. Constance Bagley, consultant and former Yale professor, spoke with STAT about campaign contributions, saying:16
“A campaign contribution gets you access. Legislators will say, ‘Well, that doesn’t mean I’m being bribed.’ But frankly, my view is that if you get immediate access if you give a contribution, and you don’t get immediate access if you don’t, it’s hard to say that it’s not getting you something.”
Bipartisan Big Pharma Support Funded Congressional Campaigns
The analysis of the state and federal campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry shows the industry takes a bipartisan approach to influencing legislators. In other words, it is not an ideology the industry supports, but rather their own bottom line.
In 2020, $4.5 million was donated to Democrats on the state level and $4.4 million to Republicans.17 Although the industry appears to have an interest in preventing the Democratic Party from controlling the White House and Congress, during 2020 $7.1 million was spent on Republican candidates and $6.6 million was spent on Democratic candidates.18
In the federal elections, STAT found that taking drug money increased the potential the candidates would be elected.19 Once elected, the drug industry and lobbyists continue to extend perks to the legislators by offering them lucrative jobs once they leave office, which has become known as the “revolving door.”
This encourages the lawmakers to protect the best interest of their future employers, the lobbyists who are representing the pharmaceutical industry. Former lobbyist and author Jack Abramoff was convicted on felony charges for fraud and conspiracy as a lobbyist and “became a symbol of the excesses of Washington influence peddling.”20
When interviewed by Lesley Stahl in 2011, he characterized lobbyists’ relationships with lawmakers this way:21
“When we would become friendly with an office and they were important to us, and the chief of staff was a competent person, I would say or my staff would say to him or her at some point, ‘You know, when you’re done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us.’
Now the moment I said that to them or any of our staff said that to ’em, that was it. We owned them. And what does that mean? Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they’re gonna do. And not only that, they’re gonna think of things we can’t think of to do.”
State campaign finance laws differ across the U.S. In some cases, corporations can donate directly to lawmakers and in other states there are no contribution limits. Maribeth Guarino, a health care advocate for the nonprofit Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, talked about the fight in Oregon to lower prescription prices, saying:22
“Pharma is fighting us hard in any way that they can: By campaign contributions, by lobbying, whatever angle they can get to gain a foothold. Oregon has no contribution limits for campaigns. Pharmaceutical companies can spend as much as they think it’ll take to win.”