WASHINGTON — There were moments during President Trump’s address on prescription drug prices on Friday that had Republican lawmakers in attendance bursting into applause and even rising from their seats. The president’s jab at the pharmaceutical lobby, however, was not one of them.
Many of the lawmakers who were present are in fact at the center of the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to lobby Congress. Those invited by the White House included Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a longtime industry ally who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare. Also invited were two other lawmakers regularly courted by the drug industry: Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee’s health panel, and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), whose Obamacare repeal bill in September nearly passed the Senate.
The companies and trade groups paying for the lobbying operations also donate heavily to the same lawmakers’ re-election campaigns.
A STAT review of four of those lawmakers’ campaign finance disclosures — Hatch, Burgess, Cassidy, and Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) — showed they have taken in a combined sum of more than $300,000 from drug manufacturers and affiliated lobbying groups in the 2018 campaign cycle, despite the fact that one is retiring and another wouldn’t be up for reelection until 2020.
“We’re going to take on one of the biggest obstacles to affordable medicine: the tangled web of special interests,” Trump said on Friday. “Not too many are sitting here today. They used to be here all the time. The drug lobby is making an absolute fortune at the expense of American consumers.”
It was unclear whether Trump was referring to the Obama administration or his own soured relationships with a number of pharma CEOs — most notably Merck’s Kenneth Frazier, who resigned from a White House manufacturing council after Trump made comments in support of white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va.
Obama himself took more than $2 million from the pharmaceutical and health products industry in the run-up to his 2012 re-election campaign.
But in their public comments, the lawmakers at the event — as well as most Republicans and a sizable portion of Democrats — have been much less inclined to call out the drug industry than Trump, who has said drug companies charge “rip-off prices” and “are getting away with murder.”
Health secretary Alex Azar — himself a former pharma executive — doubled down on the criticism on Monday, saying drug companies spend hundreds of millions on lobbying each year “trying to understand what the president and I are thinking.”
When asked about the drug industry’s lobbying practices and campaign finance donations, lawmakers largely demurred.
“Senator Cassidy wants to incentivize innovation and lower health care and drug costs for American families,” a spokesman said. “He will work with anyone who is interested in achieving these goals.”
A spokeswoman for Carter, who was also in attendance, sent a statement that blamed pharmacy benefit managers for high drug prices and ignored questions about drug manufacturers’ lobbying practices.
That may be because, for all his harsh words, Trump’s riff on the pharma lobby did not come with an accompanying call to action. A White House spokesman said the administration hadn’t warned PhRMA, the drug industry lobbying group, or other outside groups of the remarks, but declined to say whether the president thought pharmaceutical company lobbying resulted in high drug prices.
A PhRMA spokeswoman said only that the group thinks “it is vital to be engaged, and a big part of what we are focused on is coming to the table with solutions to address improve patient affordability and access.”
Drug manufacturers and affiliated political groups have already doled out $6.8 million in campaign contributions in the cycle leading up to midterm elections this November — $3.8 million to Republicans and $3 million to Democrats, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Their actual lobbying expenditures, as the president has pointed out repeatedly, are far larger.
“No industry spends more money on lobbying than the pharmaceutical/health products industry,” Trump said. “Last year, these companies spent nearly $280 million on lobbyists. That’s more than tobacco, oil, and defense contractors combined.”
Trump’s comments came in the presence of White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who rubbed his forehead during Trump’s salvo against drug lobbyists, and deputy health secretary Eric Hargan, who visibly raised an eyebrow.
Mulvaney unintentionally explained the link between lobbying and campaign contributions last month, making headlines when the New York Times reported he had told a bankers association: “We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, we didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
Hatch, a longtime ally of the pharmaceutical industry who is not running for re-election in 2018, has nonetheless taken more money from pharmaceutical manufacturers than any other candidate this cycle: $222,799.
Burgess has received $53,500; Carter has accepted $28,313; and Cassidy, who is not up for re-election until 2020, has accepted $30,000. Democrats are not viewed as competitive in any of those four races.
Companies like Pfizer and Amgen also donated heavily to Trump’s inaugural committee in the months that followed his election in November 2016, giving $1 million and $500,000, respectively.
Other companies including Merck, AbbVie, and Eli Lilly have already given in excess of $500,000 in the 2018 campaign cycle, mostly to Republicans. Trump, at various points this year, has referenced Azar’s past as the president of Eli Lilly’s U.S. division.
A political action committee affiliated with PhRMA has donated $56,500 and $36,500 to Republican and Democratic candidates, respectively, in the 2018 cycle to date. The group has given more money to whichever party has controlled the House in the last 15 cycles, with the GOP receiving more money 12 times and the Democrats three times.
In a press conference on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) demurred when asked if Democrats would stop taking contributions from the drug industry. Instead, he offered only platitudes, saying his party’s candidates would “do what the right thing is, period, no ifs, ands, or buts.”
Erin Mershon contributed reporting.