Debate on Prescription Drugs Isn't Just About Safety, It's About the Industry (Sen. Bernie Sanders)

What this debate on prescription drugs is really about is not safety. It is about the power of the pharmaceutical industry, which in this city of enormously powerful special interests stands alone as the most important, and in my view the greediest lobby in the entire United States of America.

From 1998 to 2006 they spent $1.1 billion for lobbying. The pharmaceutical industry has over 1,000 well-paid lobbyists right here on Capitol Hill: former heads of the Republican Party, former leaders in the Democratic Party. Whenever anybody stands up for justice, whenever anybody stands up to try to lower the cost of prescription drugs in this country so that the American people can afford these lifesaving medicines, these lobbyists descend like locusts on all of our offices in the Senate, in the House. That is what they do.

It is not just the amount of money they spend on lobbying. They spend a substantial amount of money on campaign contributions: From 1990 to 2006, $139 million in campaign contributions; 2006 alone, $19 million. That is power. What this debate is about is not just the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs in America, as important as that is. What this debate is more significantly about is whether the Congress of the United States has the courage to stand up to the greediest, most powerful special interests in this country.

In November the American people went to the polls. They said they want a change in the direction in which this country is moving. Clearly, that election had a lot to do with Iraq. It certainly did. It had a lot to do with global warming, I believe. But it also, in any view, had a lot to do with the understanding that year after year wealthy and powerful special interests have dictated the terms of the debate, have paid for the legislation which has come through the Senate and through the House.

The drug companies have managed to do something rather amazing. Virtually all of the Members of the Senate and the House look at economic issues through two lenses. No. 1, in order to protect consumers, we say: Let there be free market competition. That is the way to lower the costs of the product. And there is truth to that.

The other way that we can protect consumers is through government regulation. There is certainly truth to that. What the pharmaceutical industry has managed to do is tell us we cannot regulate the pharmaceutical companies. We cannot have Medicare negotiating lower prices with the drug companies. We cannot do that. They have given us all kinds of reasons we cannot do that. Then they have told us, well, we also cannot do free market competition: No, you cannot have the local druggist going out and purchasing the product at the best price that he can get, maybe in Canada, maybe Europe. You can't do that. You cannot have regulation. You cannot have free market competition.

Then, on top of all of that, what the drug companies have managed to do is get many billions of dollars in corporate welfare, so the taxpayers of this country subsidize the research and development of many of the most important drugs, while the consumers, the American consumers, get no reasonable pricing despite the many billions of dollars that go into research and development that were paid for by them.

The drug companies get it all. At the end of the day, year after year after year, they are one of the most profitable industries in this country. They are very profitable, and elderly people and working people all over this country find it harder and harder to pay for the prescription drugs that they desperately need.