REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN CALLS THE VOTE IN THE HOUSE FOR THE MEDICARE PRESCRIPTION DRUG BILL THE "UGLIEST NIGHT" HE HAS EVER SEEN IN POLITICS -- "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
Steve Kroft Reports on Drug Lobbyists' Role in Passing Bill That Keeps Drug Prices High
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) calls the lobbyist-induced frenzy to pass the Medicare prescription drug bill in the U.S. House of Representatives the "ugliest night" he has ever seen in politics. Jones' interview is part of a Steve Kroft report on how the pharmaceutical industry lobby influences Congress, to be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, April 1 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
The lobby has spent over 800 million over the past eight years in political campaign contributions and expenses and lobbyists outnumber members of Congress more two to one, according to an upcoming report from the Center for Public Integrity.
"I've been in politics for 22 years and it was the ugliest night I have ever seen in 22 years," says Jones of efforts by Republican Congressional leaders to persuade defecting Republicans to vote for one of the most expensive bills ever before the House. "The pharmaceutical lobbyists wrote the bill," says Jones, who, with Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), was among those defectors. When they tallied votes, there were not enough to pass it, so the vote was kept open for longer than normal. "They're supposed to have 15 minutes to leave the voting machines open and it was open for almost three hours," says Burton.
"The votes were there to defeat the bill for two hours and 45 minutes and we had leaders going around...trying to twist [defecting Republicans'] arms to get them to change their votes," says Burton. "It was horrible," Jones tells Kroft. "We had a good friend from Michigan, Nick Smith (formerly R-Mich.) and they threatened to work against his son who wanted to run for his seat when he retired," recalls Jones. "I saw...a member of the House, a lady, crying when they came around her, trying to get her to change her vote."
The bill passed, extending limited prescription drug coverage under Medicare to 41 million Americans. According to Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a non-partisan healthcare watchdog group, it purposefully allows drug companies to charge more by preventing Medicare from negotiating prices. As a result, one government agency will pay more for drugs than another will. "The [Veterans Administration] does bargain and they do it successfully," says Pollack. "Medicare could do the same thing, but Medicare is prohibited from doing that as a result of this new Medicare legislation."
Several lawmakers who worked on the bill have since joined firms that lobby for the drug industry, including the man who steered the legislation through the House, former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who also chaired the House committee that regulated the pharmaceutical industry. Tauzin retired to become the president of Pharma, the drug industry's top lobbying group - a $2 million-a-year post. Says Burton, "When you're pushing so hard for a bill that's controversial and you have to keep the machine open for three hours to get the one vote necessary to pass it and then, within a matter of months, you go to work for the industry that's going to benefit from it, it does cause you some concern."
Tauzin, who has survived cancer thanks to special medication and who says he wants to give back to the industry whose drugs help people like him, retorts, "There was nothing I could have done...after leaving Congress that...I didn't have some impact on in 25 years in Congress. If that looks bad, have at it. That's the truth."