For the past few months, Congressman Kurt Schrader has been fighting to kill a prescription drug pricing provision in President Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. And all the while, the Oregon Democrat has received a steady stream of donations from the pharmaceutical industry, which opposes the plan.
Specifically, Schrader helped sink a proposal that would have let Medicare negotiate prices for prescription drugs. He and two other lawmakers helped scuttle the proposal in the Energy and Commerce Committee in mid-September. Schrader, alongside Democratic House colleagues Peters of California and Kathleen Rice of New York, joined with Republicans in working to undermine the proposal. Because of those defections, the panel deadlocked 29–29, halting the proposal’s momentum in committee.
The end result was mixed. While Schrader, Peters, and Rice effectively sank the provision in the Energy and Commerce Committee, another committee, Ways and Means, advanced a similar proposal instead.
During the time Schrader, the son of a pharmaceutical executive who has represented Oregon’s 5th congressional district since 2009, was fighting the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, he was receiving donations from, among others, the political action committees for Alexion Pharmaceuticals and Vertex Pharmaceuticals, as well as health care executives and physicians.
The donations were reported in Schrader’s most recent Federal Elections Commission report, filed October 15. A few days after the proposal stalled, on September 21, Schrader held a breakfast fundraiser near the Capitol hosted by a Democratic fundraising firm. That event coincided with some of the major pharmaceutical industry donations Schrader received. The New Republic obtained a copy of the invitation.
“Please plan to bring your check with you or make arrangements for it to be in the mail before September 30th,” the invitation, written by Whitney Johnson of the Molly Allen Associates fundraising firm, said. “We appreciate your continued support of Congressman Kurt Schrader.”
It’s not clear from the invitation obtained by The New Republic who was invited or attended the fundraiser. But the FEC filings show that around the time of the event, Schrader received donations from the American Academy of Family Physicians Political Action Committee ($1,000); the American Academy of Neurology Brainpac ($1,000); the Vertex Pharmaceuticals PAC ($1,000); the American Academy of Family Physicians PAC, SkinPAC ($1,000); Biomarin Pharmaceutical PAC ($2,500); and Pfizer ($2,500). Michael Spira, a former senior lobbyist for the American Pharmacists Association, donated $250. That donation was dated a few days after the fundraiser.
The dates for donations on quarterly reports are the date the committee received the contribution.
Schrader is widely regarded as overly friendly to the pharmaceutical industry. The grandson of a Pfizer executive, the seven-term congressman has received more than $150,000 from the pharmaceuticals industry in the current and last congressional election cycle, according to a tally of those donations by The New Republic. According to an analysis from OpenSecrets, Schrader has received more than $860,000 in donations from health professionals and more than $600,000 from pharmaceuticals and the health product industry.
His opposition underscores the obstinance Democrats are seeing among members of their own caucus to advance even the most popular aspects of Biden’s domestic policy agenda. Prescription drug pricing is widely popular among the larger American electorate. Polling conducted by the Democratic polling outfit Navigator Research found that Independents said giving Medicare the ability to negotiate prescription drug pricing is one of the best reasons to pass Biden’s reconciliation package. It’s very popular among both Democrats and Republicans. Publicly and privately, the White House has also pushed the pricing provisions to lawmakers and the public as one of the strongest reasons to support the reconciliation package.
Schrader and Peters introduced their own proposal for cutting prescription drug prices. Schrader has argued that their bill was more viable for passage through the Senate. He also said he opposed the broader House bill because it would prohibit the negotiated price of 50 of the most commonly used 125 drugs by Medicare patients from exceeding 120 percent of the average price of those drugs in other countries, such as the U.K., Australia, France, and Germany. He told an Oregon newspaper that that would stifle innovation—the usual argument from foes of having the government negotiate prices.
Steve Knievel, who works as an advocate for the Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, said that Schrader’s alternate bill is “designed to evade really impacting pharmaceutical company revenues very much at all.” He continued: “The government wouldn’t even be allowed to negotiate any drugs that still have ongoing patent protections, so drugs that are still protected by government granted monopolies—the government would not be allowed to negotiate.”
Schrader’s office did not respond to inquiries from The New Republic on the donations.
It didn’t have to be this way, even given Schrader’s acceptance of donations. Knievel noted that “there are other Democrats on that committee who have received more Pharma funding than him but are still doing the right thing, still supporting inclusion of drug price negotiation in this bill.”
Knievel checked off Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone and Congressmembers Anna Eshoo and G.K. Butterfield as examples.
But Schrader’s differing position from his colleagues is a data point for the larger trend of how a few moderate Democrats are gumming up their party’s domestic policy agenda—even the more popular parts—to the delight of major special interest groups. Those interest groups have showered lawmakers with donations, further incentivizing them to fight what Democrats say is their best chance of preventing a Republican wave election in 2022. Schrader isn’t alone, but he is very much in the minority.