The Political Folly of Siding with Pharma

A new poll shows that the three House Dems blocking lower Rx prices are making a historic political error

With the narrowest of majorities, a complex set of policy issues, and huge differences between moderates and progressives, the path to the biggest, boldest piece of progressive legislation in recent memory was always going to be bumpy. Disagreements and disappointment were inevitable. But I have rarely seen a more selfish and self-defeating act than what three House Democrats did yesterday. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

Democratic Reps. Scott Peters of California, Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Kathleen Rice of New York voted against a measure enabling Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug costs in a House Energy and Commerce Committee vote Wednesday, preventing it from advancing when the panel deadlocked in a 29-29 tie.

There are good policies that are bad politics and bad policies that are good politics. Having Medicare negotiate drug prices is a great policy that is even better politics. The politics of this bill are so safe that even Joe Manchin is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the legislation.

A new poll from Data for Progress and the Center for American Progress Action Fund (DISCLOSURE: I am on the board of the Action Fund) shows how monumental a mistake these members are making. It’s a mistake that could cost Democrats the House.

The Policy

The fact that Americans pay some of the highest prescription drugs costs in the world is not an accident. As Sarah Kliff explained in Vox a few years ago:

The United States is exceptional in that it does not regulate or negotiate the prices of new prescription drugs when they come onto market. Other countries will task a government agency to meet with pharmaceutical companies and haggle over an appropriate price. These agencies will typically make decisions about whether these new drugs represent any improvement over the old drugs — whether they’re even worth bringing onto the market in the first place. They’ll pore over reams of evidence about drugs’ risks and benefits.

When President George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress expanded Medicare to cover prescription drugs, a provision backed by the pharmaceutical industry was inserted into the bill to specifically prevent Medicare from negotiating prices. This was a boon to the big drug companies. Under the new law, Medicare was obligated to buy their drugs no matter the cost and prohibited from doing anything to force these companies to lower them. The drug companies have spent tens of millions in lobbying and political advocacy to protect this provision.

Not including the Medicare provision creates other problems for an already difficult task: passing the Build Back Better agenda. Allowing Medicare to negotiate saves the federal government money — potentially up to $700 billion over ten years. Democratic leadership was counting on that money to pay for other initiatives including childcare, eldercare, and climate change measures.

The Politics

The brand new poll from Data for Progress and the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows the political power of the issue — and the abject stupidity of the members trying to kill it. According to the poll, 73 percent of all voters — and six in ten Republicans — support giving Medicare the power to negotiate lower drug prices

If these three Democrats succeed in killing a proposal supported by the overwhelming majority of House and Senate Democrats, they will be making the steep climb to retaining our majorities that much steeper. The poll found that 55 percent of all voters would be more likely to vote for a Democrat that supported the Medicare proposal. 57 percent of Independents and a stunning 29 percent of Republicans would be more likely to vote for a Democrat if they supported this proposal.

Just to hammer home the self-defeating nature of this decision, these centrists are opposing a popular policy to side with the pharmaceutical industry — which a majority of Americans have a negative impression of according to a recent Gallup poll.

And siding with drug companies is exactly what these members are doing. All three are recipients of large contributions from the industry. None are in particularly tough districts. Instead, they are putting the entire Biden agenda and the Democratic majority at risk to appease some special interest contributors.

In addition to making life harder for the rest of their caucus, Schrader, Peters, and Rice are almost certainly courting primary challenges from candidates on the correct side of an issue that 85 percent of Democrats support.

Democrats have no margin for error in 2022. If these members do not change their minds and ensure that Medicare can negotiate drug prices, they will be screwing their constituents and their colleagues. And they will do it in the name of self-defeating, special interest-funded centrism

What a terrible waste.