On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont excoriated thirteen of his Democratic colleagues for opposing a non-binding budget amendment he and Sen. Amy Klobuchar proposed to create a deficit-neutral reserve fund in order to allow Americans to import cheaper prescription medications from Canada. It’s an almost universally popular idea among members of both parties. Bernie Sanders likes it. Donald Trump likes it. Heck, even Ted Cruz likes it.
So why on earth would 13 Democrats oppose it?
Sen. Sanders thinks he knows the reason. “The Democratic Party has got to make it very clear that they are prepared to stand up to powerful special interests like the pharmaceutical industry and like Wall Street,” he said (bold mine), “and they’re not going to win elections and they’re not going to be doing the right thing for the American people unless they have the guts to do that.” It’s a facile explanation, a riff on a message he’d recited hundreds of times while on the campaign trail.
It’s also complete nonsense and a public smear against his colleagues, whose opposition had nothing to do with protecting the pharmaceutical industry and everything to do with writing a law that actually works, not just one that grabs headlines for a single politician.
The left-wing media reflexively ran with Sanders’s explanation as gospel truth, slamming Sen. Cory Booker, in particular, for his perceived betrayal. “Progressives Outraged Over Booker, Democrats’ Vote On Prescription Drugs From Canada,” Roll Call reported. “Cory Booker’s Bogus Excuse Betrays Progressives,” claimed Michael Sainato of The Observer. Similarly, on social media, Booker was slammed as a “traitor,” a “sell-out,” and “a corporate shill.”
Notably, this all occurred only a day after progressives and leftists had universally praised Booker for testifying against the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, in a daring and historic break from protocol. No member of the Senate had ever before testified against one of his colleagues in a confirmation hearing.
One day, he is hailed for his tenacity and integrity in opposing a nominee for Attorney General who had already been rejected once for a seat on the federal bench because of his racist statements. The next day, he is blasted as a tool of Big Pharma because he, along with 12 of his other Democratic colleagues, voted against a non-binding budget amendment authored by Bernie Sanders. Before he even had an opportunity to explain his vote, Sanders was on the attack.
It is true that in 2014, when he first ran for Senate, Cory Booker received $329,000 from the pharmaceutical industry. It placed him near the top of the list that year in industry donations. It’s also not too surprising: New Jersey is home to 46 different pharmaceutical companies, including the headquarters of Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Wyeth. $329,000 is a lot of money, and it’s also the same amount of money the industry has donated to first-term Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, home to exactly zero pharmaceutical company headquarters. That money goes much further in Louisiana than it does in New Jersey.
It’s also significantly less than the $4.5 million that then-Sen. Barack Obama raised from the pharmaceutical industry when he ran for President in 2008.
Last year, during his campaign for President, Bernie Sanders received $309,575 from the pharmaceutical industry. Of the 100 members of the Senate, he ranked third in donations from the industry.
For what it’s worth, the 30 Democratic members who voted in favor of Sanders’s amendment received a combined total of $1,038,971 from the pharmaceutical industry last year alone; if you include the donations Sanders, an Independent, received, the grand total is $1,348,546.
On the other hand, the 13 Democratic members who voted against his amendment raised a total of $1,039,339 from the industry.
But these aggregate totals are somewhat deceptive, because they belie the fact that nearly half of the amendment’s Democratic supporters received either no donations or less than $10,000 from the industry, while over a dozen of them received anywhere between $40,000 to $240,000.
In other words, there isn’t a direct correlation between a member’s individual vote and the size of the donations they received from the industry. The largest beneficiary of campaign donations from the industry voted against it, and the second and third largest beneficiaries voted for it.
Sanders’s explanation may sound good- that this was nothing more than a coup by the monied interests of Big Pharma; it certainly appeals to his base. But it’s nothing more than a petulant excuse to cover for his failure to craft smart legislation on an issue with which almost everyone agrees in principle.
In obfuscating the true concerns about the amendment, Sanders leads his newly-created movement down a rabbit hole of innuendo and personal attacks, instead of encouraging civil collaboration on perfecting a piece of important legislation.
The amendment failed 46-52, and it required 60 votes for passage, which means that the 13 dissenting Democrats didn’t actually affect the ultimate outcome whatsoever.
So, why did it fail?
Well, for starters, Sanders couldn’t figure out if he wanted to create a fund to import drugs from Canada or the entire world. In its initial iteration, his amendment sought to establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund to allow for the importation of drugs from “Canada and other countries.” Amy Klobuchar subsequently cleaned up the language and eliminated “other countries” from its title.
But, aside from the confusion about the scope of this proposed reserve fund, the primary reason it failed is that Sanders misapprehended the mechanisms necessary to establish an importation process that conforms with FDA guidelines. It’s not enough to say “these drugs must be safe;” there needs to be funding for quality control and compliance, which was never addressed.
Sure, this was a non-binding budget amendment, and some will argue that things could have simply been cleaned up later on. But it was ostensibly designed to be a funding mechanism, and instead, it read like a milquetoast resolution. There were a number of other amendments introduced that very day that included provisions for the Food and Drug Administration; Sanders’s didn’t, and it needed to.
In making the case for this legislation, Sanders spoke almost exclusively about the re-importation of patented American pharmaceuticals, and to be fair, that is an enormous part of the equation; it’s also what most American consumers demand. However, it doesn’t capture the entirety of the market. In some cases, American consumers may turn to Canadian compounding pharmacies for cheaper specialized medications; in others, Americans may want to purchase generic medications that are no longer patented and can be manufactured independently at a lower cost. And that’s why we need FDA oversight and compliance.
It’s easy to say, “Well, if Canada already approved these drugs, then why do we need the FDA to get involved?” Simple answer: Because the Canadian regulatory agency is responsible for protecting Canadian citizens, and the FDA is responsible for protecting American citizens.
Right now, we basically take foreign drug importers at their word. We require that they register, that they fill out some paperwork, that they label their products, and that they adhere to international best practice standards in manufacturing. But there’s no way we can really guarantee any of that.
The demand for cheaper drugs from Canada has already created a boutique industry of online pharmacies that market almost exclusively to Americans, and most of these pharmacies are fraudulent. The drugs they sell may be deadly. Recently, a Canadian drug manufacturer was caught selling fake cancer drugs to American doctors.
And that is precisely why it’s so important to get this legislation right, from the beginning.
If Bernie Sanders is serious about reducing drug prices, he should stop smearing his colleagues for rejecting his flawed amendment and instead start listening to them.