WASHINGTON — The world’s biggest drug makers and their trade groups have cut checks to 356 lawmakers ahead of this year’s election — more than two-thirds of the sitting members of Congress, according to a new STAT analysis.
It’s a barrage of contributions that accounts for roughly $11 million in campaign giving, distributed via roughly 4,500 checks from the political action committees affiliated with the companies.
The spending follows a long tradition of generous political giving. Major manufacturers typically make hundreds of modest donations to incumbent members of Congress but avoid donating to presidential candidates, seeing little utility in placing presidential bets.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a race among drug makers eager to develop a vaccine and improve the industry’s standing in Washington — pharma’s giving underscores the breadth of its influence and its efforts to curry favor through lobbying and donations to the lawmakers who regulate health care.
STAT’s examination focused on 23 of the biggest drug makers and the two major trade associations: PhRMA and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, known as BIO. It includes a series of data visualizations that map the pharmaceutical industry’s spending and the lawmakers who’ve accepted its PAC donations.
The analysis underscores the array of connections between the lawmakers and the drug companies they regulate. Already in 2020, the companies’ PACs have donated $8.62 million to individual candidates or their affiliated committees. The companies directed another $2.59 million to broader political groups like the Moderate Democrats PAC or the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and to other drug industry PACs, including PhRMA’s.
Pfizer’s PAC has been the most active, sending 548 checks to various lawmakers and other industry groups — more checks than the actual number of elected officials in the House and Senate. Amgen and Merck cut another 405 and 379, respectively. The companies spread their cash far and wide: Illinois-based AbbVie, for instance, made contributions to lawmakers in 45 states, as well as the nonvoting House delegates who represent the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The drug industry’s political spending this year — much of which has flooded in over the last six months — comes even as most drug makers have thrown their energy into efforts into finding, testing, and developing Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. Drug manufacturers around the world have leapt into the race, including several whose PACs have supported hundreds of lawmakers, including Pfizer, Gilead Sciences, and AstraZeneca.
Washington has responded with clear financial rewards for that work. Already, Congress has provided billions of additional dollars to federal health care agencies aimed at helping fund drug company research. A recent proposal from Senate Republicans would award BARDA, an agency largely tasked with funding drug companies’ Covid-19 efforts, an additional $20 billion — 14 times more money than it was allocated last year.
“It’s less about a particular deliverable and more about creating a relationship,” said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a money-in-politics group that STAT contracted with to supply contribution records. “And, maybe, greasing the skids on a particular issue for which a company has great concern or sees great opportunity. On Covid, it’s certainly both — these corporations are being called to the aid of a country in crisis.”
Billy Tauzin, a former Louisiana congressman who later served as CEO of the trade group PhRMA, said in an interview that corporate PAC contributions should be viewed “in the eye of the beholder.” He said they represent a logical way for high-ranking industry employees to support their interests in Washington.
“If you want to believe that it’s a corrupt system and people are buying favors, I suppose nobody’s going to convince you otherwise,” he said. “On the other hand, you can accept the notion that not just corporations but individuals in America tend to donate to people with whom they associate — they like the way they vote, they like the way they speak on issues, they like the positions they’ve taken. So you tend to answer the call when they contact you and say: ‘I need some help with my campaign.’”
The industry’s congressional spending is also an attempt to avert something of a political armageddon in 2020: If Democrats take control of the Senate and former vice president Joe Biden defeats President Trump, Congress would be poised to enact unprecedented reforms to the way Americans pay for prescription drugs — reforms that would likely slash drug industry revenues.
Democrats in the House have already advanced legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and, echoing a Trump proposal, to cap U.S. prices based on what pharmaceutical companies charge for medicines in other countries. Biden, despite his reputation as a political moderate and an industry ally, has also campaigned on an aggressive drug pricing platform.
“Big Pharma is trying to buy maintenance of the rigged status quo,” Ben Wakana, the executive director of the advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, said when asked about STAT’s analysis. “The breadth of these contributions shows drug corporations have no intention of doing anything to lower their prices — they are lavishing millions in campaign contributions to protect their power to dictate high prices for prescription drugs.”
PhRMA, the powerful drug industry trade group, declined to comment on the strategy behind it and its member companies’ political giving, citing a policy of not publicly discussing political advocacy or lobbying tactics.
STAT’s analysis sheds light on which lawmakers have accepted the most checks or highest sums from the drug industry. Twenty-three of the 25 drug companies or trade group PACs in STAT’s survey contributed to Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader seeking reelection in 2020 who raked in more from the industry than any other lawmaker.
At the same time, drug industry PACs have also supported a number of lower-profile legislators, many of whom are perceived as industry allies: Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), for instance, received contributions from 18 individual drug companies’ PACs, as well as from PhRMA, the major industry trade group.
For all the spending on allies, some company PACs made exceptions. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an outspoken pharmaceutical industry critic and the author of drug pricing legislation in the Senate, accepted checks from Amgen and from the trade group BIO.
Though the drug industry’s $11 million in contributions is substantial, the money is spread across hundreds of candidates and rarely significant enough to sway any individual race: Political groups often spend well over $100 million on individual Senate races, making the nearly $200,000 directed to McConnell more of a value statement than a political game-changer.
As in previous cycles, the drug industry favored Republicans in its campaign giving, but only somewhat: Of the contributions that targeted specific lawmakers or party groups, 53.5% went to GOP lawmakers or Republican-aligned groups, spread across roughly 2,600 donations. The remaining 46.6% went to Democrats, spread across roughly 2,100 individual donations.
The pharmaceutical industry’s campaign giving is broadly in line with other major industries, whose member company PACs typically give millions or tens of millions of dollars to congressional candidates each election season.
To contribute to campaigns, drug companies form political action committees that high-level employees are often encouraged to donate to. Those PACs are commonly viewed as a proxy operating in the company’s interest, because corporations themselves are prohibited by law from donating directly to candidates. Executives often donate hundreds of dollars each month to their company’s PAC, though their contributions are capped at $5,000 annually.
Companies and trade groups also sometimes funnel money to candidates less directly, via independent committees known as “super PACs” not technically affiliated with a specific candidate but that can raise unlimited money from corporations.
Companies employ different strategies to determine PAC spending, but high-level company executives often effectively control the process.
Many manufacturers employ PAC boards, which are often composed of company executives and other high-level employees, to decide which candidates to support.
“Those are typically senior-level government-affairs executives,” said Kristin Brackemyre, the government relations director for the Public Affairs Council, a nonpartisan professional association in Washington. “Legal counsel is very involved in PAC processes and activities, and then oftentimes there’s a financial officer — but we’re seeing that a lot of corporate PACs are really trying to diversify the representatives that serve on their PAC boards so that it’s more reflective of the company at large.”
Pfizer’s PAC, which has given more to candidates than any other individual drug manufacturer group in the 2020 cycle, is co-chaired by Sally Susman, the company’s chief corporate affairs officer.
Brackemyre added: “It’s things like: Is this member a member of leadership? Are they serving on a committee with jurisdiction over issues that are important to our company or our industry? Have they been a sympathetic ear to issues that are important to our industry? Do they have a voting record that aligns with the priorities of [our] organization?”
Ahead of a historic election, pharma targets its Republican favorites
The drug industry has a clear stake in keeping the Senate in Republican hands — and its political spending in 2020 reflects that priority.
The drug industry has showered $197,386 on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this cycle, more than any other lawmaker. Its PACs have also thrown more than $100,000 each to five other Republican senators up for reelection, many of whom are seen as industry allies: Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, John Cornyn of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana.
The strategy is clear: With Joe Biden leading President Trump in early polling, and with Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, the race for Senate in 2020 may determine whether the party controls all three branches of government.
That represents something of a nightmare scenario for drug companies, who in recent years have scrambled to fight off proposals from House Democrats and from the Trump administration to aggressively control drug prices.
Nearly all of the Republicans that the industry is protecting face well-funded Democratic challengers, many of whom are polling competitively with Republican incumbents even in Trump-friendly states like Montana and South Carolina.
Drug company PACs, however, have not neglected Democratic incumbents: Vulnerable senators including Doug Jones of Alabama and Gary Peters of Michigan also ranked among the top 20 recipients of pharmaceutical industry cash.
It is typical, in fact, for corporate PACs to support incumbent lawmakers’ reelection bids, regardless of their party affiliations. In 2018, many top recipients of drug industry funding were Democratic senators, like Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
Beyond their interest in preserving a GOP Senate majority, drug industry PACs have traditionally supported lawmakers who are seen as allies, or who hold key positions in Congress that uniquely position them to influence policies relevant to the industry.
“They seem to target officials that were sitting on key health care committees, so the Energy and Commerce and the Ways and Means committees, the Finance Committee in the Senate,” said Olivier Wouters, a professor at the London School of Economics who this year published a two-decade analysis of pharmaceutical campaign spending. “They appear to be giving this money quite strategically.”
McConnell, the Senate leader, has expressed little interest in pursuing drug pricing legislation in the past four years — so much that he has ignored a major, bipartisan proposal that passed the Senate Finance Committee, declining to advance it to the Senate for a vote. In 2019, Cornyn, at drug lobbyists’ behest, softened patent legislation aimed at lowering drug prices. Tillis is a staunch industry ally who represents major biotech and drug manufacturing interests in North Carolina, and who has authored intellectual property legislation supported by drug companies.
And while Cassidy has wavered on whether he supports a controversial measure to limit drug prices based on what drug companies charge overseas, he broadly remains an evangelist for drug companies and the billions of dollars they spend each year on research and development.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and a McConnell spokesman did not respond to STAT’s request for comment.
“They’re not going to abandon their longtime industry allies who are in need, who happen this cycle to be mostly Republicans up for reelection,” said Krumholz, of the Center for Responsive Politics. “What typically happens is that they’ll give to the incumbent, and if as the election approaches the incumbent looks particularly at risk, they will consider gifts to the challenger.”
If Democrats gained control of the Senate, they’d likely push to pass legislation along the lines of the Lower Drug Costs Now Act of 2019 — a Democratic proposal that would let Medicare directly negotiate the price of 250 drugs and would cap U.S. prices based on those charged in other developed countries. That bill, congressional actuaries estimate, would cost the drug industry between $500 billion and $1 trillion in revenue in the decade after its passage.
The top two Democratic recipients overall were clearly more calculated targets: Both Sens. Chris Coons (Del.) and Menendez represent states where pharmaceutical manufacturers play large roles in the local economy.
Coons is also seen as an industry ally, and has worked with Tillis to vocally advocate for the stronger intellectual property protections favored by the drug industry.
As in the past, pharma leans towards Republicans over Democrats
In 14 of the past 16 elections, dating to 1990, pharmaceutical industry PACs have given more money to Republicans than to Democrats.
This cycle is no exception: So far in 2020, according to STAT’s analysis, 53.5% of drug industry PAC donations to lawmakers or groups affiliated with a political party have gone to Republicans, while 46.6% have gone to Democrats.
The difference is more stark at the leadership level. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) got $129,000 in drug industry campaign cash. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, received just $11,000.
And while McConnell’s $197,386 make him the leading recipient of industry PAC contributions, according to STAT’s analysis, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has accepted only $77,500 from drug makers to date.
Though drug industry PACs most commonly wrote checks to high-profile lawmakers like McConnell or Schumer, many also targeted comparatively rank-and-file members of Congress of both parties.
Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), who holds a coveted seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight panel, has accepted $108,147 from drug industry groups so far this cycle. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who also sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, was a leading recipient among Democrats with $86,000.
Despite the drug industry’s varied giving, in many ways, unified Democratic control of the House and Senate spells a nightmare scenario for the drug industry. House Democrats passed a bill to lower drug prices in 2019 and progressives in the Senate have similarly touted schemes to cap U.S. pharmaceutical prices based on the cost of drugs in other developed countries.
A Biden presidency, given his sweeping drug pricing platform, would only add to the industry’s woes.
While drug industry advocates have long cast themselves as bipartisan, the campaign finance landscape in 2020 paints an increasingly clear picture of the pharmaceutical industry’s view: Now, perhaps more than ever, it is Republicans who will support their agenda in Congress.
Even among GOP ranks, however, there is little that leading drug industry figures can count on.
“Big Pharma has no political loyalty, and their strategy of gaining influence by supporting politicians on both sides of the aisle has earned them many friends in Washington,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told STAT in a statement.
STAT’s analysis focuses on the Federal Election Commission’s July quarterly reporting filings, and will be updated as drug companies, candidates, and affiliated political committees disclose additional contributions.
The examination relies on records compiled by federal disclosure systems and the Center for Responsive Politics to detail campaign contributions from the 23 biggest drug manufacturers by overall revenue, and the two major trade groups that represent them: PhRMA and BIO.
The analysis includes contributions made directly to candidates’ election committees as well as to PACs affiliated with individual candidates. For example, data visualizations include pharmaceutical contributions to the campaign committee of Grassley and to Hawkeye PAC, a separate, Grassley-affiliated campaign group. Contributions to both organizations are attributed to Grassley.
The analysis excludes contributions to groups like the Blue Dog PAC, which are loosely affiliated with groups of lawmakers but not directly attributable to a single member of Congress.
While AbbVie acquired Allergan in May 2020, STAT’s analysis considers each company individually for the purposes of analyzing their PACs’ political spending. Similarly, the analysis treats PACs affiliated with Bristol Myers Squibb and Celgene separately, despite the completion of the Bristol Myers Squibb’s acquisition in late 2019. In both cases, the companies operated separate PACs and existed as distinct business entities for much of the 2020 election cycle.
In two cases, the analysis also groups together the subsidiaries of a larger drug manufacturer, even if they maintain PACs distinct from that of their parent company. Takeda contributions are mapped jointly with Shire, its subsidiary. Roche Holdings is represented by the combined PAC contributions of two subsidiaries that maintain their own PACs: Genentech and Spark Therapeutics.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the South Carolina senator seeking reelection in 2020.