With Biden’s agenda in the balance, lobbying kicks into high gear
By Luke Broadwater
As centrist Democrats in Congress have worked to block or strip out major provisions of President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion social safety net and climate plan, a string of online ads has popped up in their states and districts, lavishing praise on them.
One calls Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who has emerged as a leading holdout on the measure, an “independent voice” and a “bipartisan leader.” Another says Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon is pushing for the “Biden-Schrader” agenda, though he clearly opposes key portions of the president’s package. A third praises Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York for “fighting for our health care and our economy,” even as she undercuts elements of Biden’s plan.
There is one thing the ads do not say as prominently: They are paid for by groups funded by the pharmaceutical industry and business interests that are lobbying hard to kill or reshape crucial pieces of the president’s plan.
As Democrats labor to keep Biden’s proposal on track in Congress amid deep internal divisions, a robust influence campaign is meeting it at every turn. Business groups are working in overdrive to fight large swaths of it, such as raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations; expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision services; and proposed taxes and fees to cut down on carbon emissions.
The effort is unfolding less conspicuously than previous lobbying pushes; pandemic restrictions have limited large gatherings of lobbyists at the Capitol, so the corridor outside the Senate Finance Committee’s office, which has long been known as “Gucci Gulch,” is no longer overrun with shiny Italian shoes. But the campaign is proceeding as intensely as ever, via individual meetings, Zoom calls, fundraisers and the airwaves.
More than 4,000 lobbyists are working on budget and spending issues, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit watchdog group that tracks money in politics. Ten major industries have spent nearly $700 million this year on lobbying, the group said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is lobbying to kill the bill because of its tax increases, has already spent about $30 million this year on lobbyists. The pharmaceutical industry, which is trying to defeat a proposal in the measure to bring down drug costs, has spent more than $15 million.
“Every group is reaching out and they want a meeting,” says Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., one of the chief champions of using the far-reaching budget bill to raise taxes on the wealthy. “If they don’t get a commitment in the first meeting, they want a second meeting — and then a third, and then a fourth. They are paying very close attention.”
The influence campaigns cut both ways. Several political action committees and other groups are spending freely to broaden the bill even further and push for its enactment.
Building Back Together, a group formed to support the proposals, is part of a coalition that has committed to spending $150 million on advertising to build support for Biden’s plan. The League of Conservation Voters has spent nearly $6.7 million this month on advertising, according to the analytics firm AdImpact. It is urging Congress to cut carbon pollution in half by 2030 — an element of the package — and has threatened to withhold campaign donations from Democrats who do not support it.
Perhaps no aspect of the package has generated more lobbying activity than a proposal to lower the cost of prescription drugs by empowering Medicare to negotiate their cost. The pharmaceutical lobby is spending more than $1 million on television ads to oppose it. And there are now nearly 1,500 registered pharmaceutical or health care lobbyists working lawmakers in Congress, nearly three for every member, according to Open Secrets.
PhRMA, the trade group representing pharmaceutical companies, began its first ad against the package last month. In it, a woman named Sue looks into the camera, a tinge of melancholy in her voice, and says the Democrats’ plan would “make it harder for people on Medicare to get the medicines we need.” The ad airs frequently during political news shows watched by policymakers.
The association followed up with another ad accusing politicians of wanting to decide “which medicines you can and can’t get, regardless of what your doctor prescribes.” That was followed with a print advertising campaign, and then an open letter from 30 pharmaceutical companies.
At the same time, a group called Center Forward is running targeted digital ads supporting centrist Democrats who are working to whittle down the bill. The group receives nearly $1.5 million per year from PhRMA, according to tax records.
PhRMA insists its influence campaign is not trying to kill Biden’s multitrillion-dollar bill — they propose an alternative plan that would be less costly for the industry — but the package’s demise is the goal of some other groups.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has condemned the legislation, with its chief executive, Suzanne Clark, arguing it would “dramatically expand the size and scope of government through record levels of inflationary spending and impose massive tax increases that will halt America’s fragile economic recovery.”
“The chamber will do everything we can to prevent this tax-raising, job-killing reconciliation bill from becoming law,” Clark pledged.
No Labels, an organization funded by businesses that has close ties to centrist lawmakers including Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., is working to pass Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, but agitating to kill the broader social policy plan.
When Manchin called for a “pause” to Biden’s $3.5 trillion social policy plan, No Labels quickly put out an ad endorsing his position as “common sense.”
Andrew Bates, a deputy White House press secretary, said Biden’s plan would improve the lives of middle-class Americans and strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.
The lobbying has angered liberals who blame corporate influence campaigns for standing in the way of their party’s highest priorities.
“We see it on TV every day,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s really sad, because this is the president’s agenda.”
No Labels did not respond to a request for comment.
Supporters of Biden’s agenda have gone on the offensive as well.
The Working Families Party recently began targeting critical ads at Sinema, who has received campaign contributions from business interests opposed to the package.
“She’d rather protect wealthy donors,” one of the group’s ads says of Sinema, encouraging supporters to let their opposition to her be known.