Can Congress Kick Its Habit?

by Representative Bernie Sanders

In These Times magazine, October 2000


Nothing exemplifies the power of big money in Washington more than the pharmaceutical industry, which spends more money on campaign contributions and lobbying than any other industry. When Congress reconvenes this fall, the American people will see whether their elected leaders have the courage to stand up to all of that political muscle and pass legislation that would significantly lower the price of prescription drugs.

Right now, both political parties and their presidential candidates are blanketing the airwaves with their plans to provide prescription drug benefits to senior citizens. The Republican plan, which passed the House, is primarily a poll-driven sham that would do little, if anything, to address the very serious crisis facing millions of seniors who are unable to afford their medicine. The Democratic House plan, which provides a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, is a more serious proposal but would still require many seniors to pay a substantial amount for their drugs. Unfortunately, but not too surprisingly, neither proposal addresses the most important question: Why is it that the same prescription drugs in this country cost far more than in any other country?

That is why, more than a year ago, I joined with Rep. Jo Anne Emerson (R-Missouri) and Rep. Marion Berry (D-Arkansas) in introducing tri-partisan legislation that would allow U.S. prescription drug distributors and pharmacists to re-import drugs from abroad at drastically lower prices, so long as the drugs met rigid FDA safety standards. Pharmaceutical manufacturers sell their products in many other countries for 30 to 50 percent less than in the United States. By eliminating the federal law that gives these manufacturers a monopoly over prescription drug imports, American consumers will be able to take advantage of the lower prices abroad and the cost of prescription drugs will plummet in the United States at no expense to the taxpayer. With the savings from our legislation, Vice President Gore's plan to pay 50 percent of Medicare beneficiaries out-of-pocket prescription drug costs could actually pay for 80 percent of those costs at no additional charge to taxpayers.

This summer, strong bipartisan majorities in the House and the Senate voted to add legislation similar to our proposal in this year's Agriculture Appropriations Bill. Despite the bill's strong congressional support, however, the pharmaceutical industry is working overtime to defeat or neutralize it when it comes before the Agricultural Appropriations House Senate conference committee this fall.

The drug companies have launched an all-out, multimillion dollar lobbying and advertising campaign to protect their lucrative monopoly. Not surprisingly, there has been a deafening silence on this issue from the Republican congressional leadership, whose party has received more than $6 million from drug companies during this election cycle. The White House, whose party has received $2.4 million from the industry, also has showed a marked lack of enthusiasm for the bill. In other words, despite the strong desire of the American people to see lower prescription drug prices and the support of the vast majority of Congress for serious legislation to accomplish that goal, the pharmaceutical industry could win out because of the hold it has over the leadership of both parties.

People may wonder how, in a supposed democracy, a single industry can wield such incredible power. Let me tell you: The drug companies constitute the most profitable industry in America-enjoying more than $27 billion in profits last year. With those resources they can spend unlimited amounts to defeat efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

The industry's lobbying efforts are unparalleled. Public Citizen estimates that the drug companies have close to 300 paid lobbyists on Capitol Hill- one for every two members of Congress. Last year they budgeted $65 million for political advertising to prevent Congress from passing meaningful prescription drug reform. As I write, they are spending millions on deceitful television, radio and full-page newspaper ads all across the country to defeat the re-importation initiative.

But even with all this money, they cannot justify what I have seen with my own eyes when I made two trips to Canada with my Vermont constituents to purchase prescription drugs. Vermonters were able to save thousands of dollars on the medicine they needed by going over the border. One of the starkest examples was Tamoxifen, a widely prescribed breast cancer drug, which sells for a 10th of the price in Canada that it sells for in the United States.

The American people are entitled to lower prices for their prescription drugs, but even more importantly, they deserve to know that the political leadership of our nation cannot be bought.


Bernie Sanders of Vermont is the only elected independent in Congress. "Capitol Ideas" will appear regularly in In These Times as a forum for progressive leaders to share their policy ideas.

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