The Biden administration and Congress are embroiled in high-stakes haggling over what urgent priorities will make it into the ever-shrinking social spending bill. But for the pharmaceutical industry there is one agenda: Heading off Medicare drug price negotiation, which it considers an existential threat to its business model.
The siren call to contain rising drug costs helped catapult Democrats to power, and the idea is popular among voters regardless of their politics. Yet granting Medicare broad authority to intervene in setting prices has nonetheless divided the party.
And so, as it normally does, the drug industry gave generously to members of Congress, according to new data from KHN’s Pharma Cash to Congress database. Contributions covering the first half of this year show that some of its biggest donations were delivered with surgical-strike precision to sympathetic or moderate Democratic lawmakers the industry needs to remain in its corner.
Campaign donations to members of Congress — which must be reported to the Federal Election Commission — are the tip of the iceberg, signaling far greater activity in influence peddling that includes spending millions on lobbying activities and advertising campaigns.
Unusually, in the first half of this year Republicans and Democrats in Congress were virtually neck and neck in pulling in drug industry money, according to a KHN analysis of campaign contributions. In prior years, Republicans dominated giving from that sector, often by huge margins.
Pharmaceutical companies and their lobbying groups gave roughly $1.6 million to lawmakers during the first six months of 2021, with Republicans accepting $785,000 and Democrats $776,200, the Pharma Cash to Congress database shows. Since the 2008 cycle, the industry has generally favored Republicans. The exception was 2009-10, the last time Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House.
Democrats again narrowly hold both the House and Senate, and political scientists and other money-in-politics experts said the contributions likely reflect who is in power, which lawmakers face tougher reelection bids next year, and who has outsize sway over legislation affecting the industry’s bottom line.
Several pharmaceutical companies paused contributions to Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election, blunting the GOP’s total fundraising haul and overall industry giving compared with other years.
The drug industry’s campaign contributions are markedly strategic, said Steven Billet, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.
“This is a really well-organized commercial sector,” Billet said. “If I’m one of these PACs, I’ve surveyed the landscape at the front end of the process, decided on our agenda and budget, and figured out who I may be able to get to and who I wouldn’t be able to get to.”
Of the top 10 recipients of funding, Republican lawmakers accounted for six; Democrats, four. Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) received the most money of any member of Congress, with $63,900 in contributions in the first half of the year. Peters, whose San Diego-area