The influence of Washington lobbies is often exercised invisibly, through tactics of procrastination. At times like this, when Congress is within weeks of adjournment, postponing action on a bill can be as effective as defeating it.
That is the hidden significance of the House Republican leadership's delay in naming conferees to negotiate with the Senate on the agriculture appropriations bill. That bill includes provisions, passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate, to ease the ban on reimportation of American-made prescription drugs from Canada and other countries, where they are often sold for a fraction of their U.S. price.
The pharmaceutical industry is fighting to keep that section of the bill from becoming law -- and every day that goes by, its chances of killing it improve, as lawmakers eager to get home for the campaign become more willing to jettison controversial side issues and simply pass the funding bills necessary to keep the government running.
No one claims this legislation would be more than a makeshift response to the growing public concern about the affordability of drugs, especially for the elderly. But given the importance of this issue in the campaign, most Democrats and more than a few Republicans see the measure as a way to provide some short-term financial relief, while the parties remain deadlocked over the best way to add a drug benefit for senior citizens.
The pharmaceutical industry, which is lavish in its contributions to both parties, is fighting furiously to stop the legislation. The odd thing is that its public argument -- pushed in an aggressive ad campaign by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America -- seems suspect. A weightier cautionary consideration is rarely discussed.
The industry claims that the proposed law would risk exposing the American public to contaminated, ineffective or even dangerous drugs.
Current law bars anyone except the original manufacturer from reimporting drugs into the United States. Last month, PHRMA trumpeted statements it collected from 11 former commissioners of the Food and Drug Administration warning of the dangers if that ban were relaxed.
Rep. Bernie Sanders, the socialist Independent from Vermont who introduced the now-popular campaign tactic of escorting constituents into Canada to shop for prescription drug bargains, told me that the whole health and safety issue was "a red herring." For Sanders, it is simply "a moral outrage" that American pharmaceutical companies, which are enjoying large profits, can get away with charging U.S. citizens as much as two or three times the price for drugs as they do in Canada's price-controlled market.
Some Republicans agree. Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, in a tough race for re-election, went on a Canadian shopping expedition and came back a supporter of the bill. Gorton told the Senate he was opposed to price controls, but he added, "That doesn't mean we should allow Americans to continue to suffer immense discrimination" in drug prices.
But the price control issue is a real one. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, a Democratic sponsor of the measure, said in debate: "It is not my intention to have the American people go to another country for their drugs. It is my intention to force the pharmaceutical industry to reprice their drugs here in the United States."
As Sen. John Breaux, D-La., pointed out in opposing the measure, its effect would be to drive U.S. drug prices down to whatever level Canada sets by law. "Why don't we just put on price controls in this country and call it what it is?" Breaux asked.
But price controls have a checkered history. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said, governments often try to rein in some rapidly growing industry through a system of price controls, and "it always fails." Impose them, directly or indirectly, on the pharmaceutical industry, he warned, and "a period of enormous innovation, very recent in the history of medicine, will come to a close."
Having decried the legislation, Moynihan then fell in line with the Democratic leadership and voted for it. One more paradox in a debate with more than its quota of contradictions.
Washington Post Writers Group