For Big Pharma, the revolving door keeps spinning
© Stefani Reynolds

Americans know that when lobbyists run our government, the wealthy and connected benefit most. Since President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE took office, the “swamp” he promised to drain has only deepened. The president has filled key White House and Cabinet positions with his own wealthy donors and friends.

But what happens when government leaders leave Washington for cushy jobs on corporate boards? Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is just the latest administration official to go through the revolving door after his second tour at the FDA.

Gottlieb recently resigned from his spot as the top federal drug regulator to take on a role at Pfizer—the top drug producer in the United States. The move came with a nice cash bonus as well, as stock options doubled the former commissioner’s income to upwards of $330,000. 

Big Pharma CEOs across the board were sad to see Gottlieb leave. Chief Executives at Novartis and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals publicly thanked him for his work at the FDA—even saying “we’re going to miss him.”

In his time as head of the FDA, Gottlieb lowered the number of inspections at both foreign and domestic drug manufacturers producing drugs sold in the United States. He also sped up the approval process for experimental and generic drugs, leading many to question whether the “newer and cheaper” drugs hitting the market were actually safe. Those policies directly benefited Big Pharma bottom lines.

But Gottlieb’s hiring is just the latest in a long line of moves to fortify the industry’s influence in Washington. Big Pharma spending on lobbying eclipses every other industry according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Current Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar—Gottlieb’s former boss—used to be president of Lilly USA, the U.S. branch of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Trump lauded his appointment by calling Azar a “star for better healthcare and lower drug prices,” but during his time there the company raised the brand’s insulin prices threefold creating a crisis and drawing public outrage.

The revolving door long predates the Trump administration, but with billions of dollars at stake, more money and more people have been bouncing between the White House and major corporations in the health industry and beyond. 

Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is now a board member for the holding company operating the largest shelter for unaccompanied migrant children. And while Kelly personally stands to make at least $100,000 in an annual cash retainer, his company was offered a no-bid federal contract that could amount to more than $340 million—all to run the only for-profit shelter in the country.

It’s clear to see that the Trump administration has no interest in even keeping up appearances when it comes to the revolving door and ethics. In Common Cause’s 2017 State of the Swamp Report, we highlighted the administration’s rejection of an ethics course for senior White House staff, Cabinet nominees and other political appointees.

The move was fitting, as the president’s Cabinet had more former corporate leaders than any other in U.S. history.

A study last year found more than 160 former lobbyists serving in the Trump administration—and those industry ties point to an administration that puts the priorities of large corporations over those of the American people. 

Just months-removed from vacating his position at the Environmental Protection Agency, former Secretary Scott Pruitt has already registered as a lobbyist in Indiana. The disgraced Cabinet head resigned amidst high-profile spending scandals and—unsurprisingly—his close ties to lobbyists in the energy industry. While it’s hardly a prestigious board membership, Pruitt’s lobbying gig already has him cashing in on coal company payrolls.

Former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt is the current Acting Secretary of the Department of the Interior—just two years removed from representing clients like Cobalt International Energy and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. The former lobbyist got to work quickly, handing out oil and gas leases for public lands to the tune of $360 million in 2017, a near-90 percent increase from the year before. All this happening as he methodically erased any mention of climate change from his department.

Corporate executives and industry lobbyists cannot be effective regulators of the industries that have made them millions—especially when yet another check awaits them the minute they leave.

The revolving door is an age-old problem in Washington but the scope and volume of the conflicts in the current administration - starting with the president himself – is unprecedented and lends new urgency to legislative reforms pending in Congress. The “Executive Branch Conflict of Interest Act” (HR 599/S 156) would curb many of these abuses by mandating recusal periods, prohibiting employer bonuses to those leaving to take government positions, tightening lobbying rules and lengthening “cooling off” periods. Presidential conflicts of interest measures have also been introduced in both the House (HR 1481) and Senate (S 882). Provisions from these bills are also included in a sweeping set of reforms in the “For the People Act” (HR 1/S 949), which passed the House earlier this year.

Americans across the country have been demanding and passing democracy reforms at the state and local level and they are sick and tired of business as usual in Washington. They expect changes in Washington. The failure by the last Congress to heed public demands for meaningful democracy reforms led to a drastic change in the composition of the U.S. House of Representatives. Another election is fast approaching and Americans are watching Congress closely.

Karen Hobert Flynn is president of Common Cause.