On Wednesday, three "moderate" House Democrats on the Health and Pensions Committee voted with Republicans against a Build Back Better Act provision that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and since the resulting vote was 29-29, the provision didn't advance out of committee. While the arc of history bends toward justice, as Dr. King told us, that arc sure looks flat while we're standing beneath it, so we can't merely dismiss pessimism about the Democrats' efforts to use what power they have to do good works for the American people. And Medicare drug price negotiation is a slam dunk as far as the popular will is concerned -- both the Kaiser Family Foundation and Data for Progress have found close to 90% support for it in recent polls -- which would make the Democrats the Ben Simmons of political parties if they can't get it done.
"Moderate" arguments against Medicare drug price negotiation sure ain't slam dunks, either. One of the three "moderate" Democrats who voted against the bill, Rep. Kathleen Rice (NY-14), floated the suggestion earlier this week that Medicare drug price negotiation was "not fiscally responsible," an argument that offends not just intelligence but sentience. Our Congressional Budget Office (or CBO) estimated the savings on drug prices for Medicare drug price negotiation (as per H.R. 3, which wouldn't even let Medicare negotiate the prices of all drugs) at $456 billion over 10 years; House Democrats have, more informally, estimated the savings at $700 billion, and, as I may have mentioned on occasion, the right-wing Mercatus Center rather unsuccessfully buried their finding that Medicare drug price negotiation would save a whopping $840 billion. The fiscal-irresponsibility argument thus fails under the most cursory scrutiny, but "moderates" stand ready to deploy substitute arguments. Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52), having apparently failed to grasp the literal meaning of the word "negotiation," warned of "government-dictated prices" for drugs, and Rep. Kurt Schrader (OR-5) loosed the zombie lie that Medicare drug price negotiation would "kill() jobs and innovation that drives cures for these rare diseases."
The "fiscal irresponsibility" and "government-dictated prices" lies are evil, of course, but persuading folks of that is much easier than it was a dozen years ago. But the "kills jobs and innovation" lie is worse, because it still gives too many good Americans pause. If drug corporations make less money in profits, they'll have to cut jobs? Sounds cut-and-dried! Except, of course, that it's not, and not just because what a corporation spends on research isn't "profit" by definition. For 40 years Our Glorious Elites have conditioned us to accept that literally any time a corporation loses money it should just fire people. But the big pharma corporations could also pay their CEOs less, enable less CEO stock buy-back activity (since that's what normally happens when you give corporations the kind of "freedom to innovate" we're talking about here!), or spend far, far less money on advertising. Or they could take even more taxpayer funding than they already do. As I've said before, American taxpayers funded the Moderna COVID vaccine in its entirety, and as it happens literally every single drug our FDA approved between 2010 and 2016 received at least some taxpayer funding.
But the innovation lie does more harm than that, and it does harm we can quantify, as the aforementioned Data for Progress study found that support for Medicare drug price negotiation softened somewhat (from 86% to 81%) if you mentioned innovation as a reason to oppose it. The "stifles innovation" argument doesn't admit the nature of innovation as we have understood it for thousands of years. "Necessity is the mother of invention" is a cliché for a reason, after all, and corporations, like people, don't innovate because they have the "freedom" to do so, but because they have. The "freedom to innovate" is a meaningless phrase, because none of us "innovates" unless and until faced with an obstacle or problem of some kind. And that's not all the harm the lie does. Let's say corporations simply said they wouldn't research new drugs unless we let them sell to Medicare for how ever much money they wanted, and damn the cost to the taxpayer. Why would we tolerate that? We're Americans, which means, among so many other things, that we don't think of ourselves as hostages; we think of ourselves as free people. Should free people simply let big corporations charge as much as they'd like for prescription drugs under threat of future painful death due to a willful lack of drug research?
I said earlier that the failure of this vote -- which we can rectify, if we do our jobs and get in our Reps' and Senators' grills about it -- makes the Democrats seem like the Ben Simmons of political parties. But there is always the possibility they just want us to think so -- that they fully intend their big budget reconciliation bill to die by a thousand cuts, of which this Medicare drug price negotiation failure would be one, all so that they can continue the horrible drama of post-Reagan American politics, where Democrats do nothing with the power they get, lose their power to Republicans, fundraise on Republicans' evil behavior, and then only gain power back when Republicans do the unconscionable. And though making "moderate" Democrats vote against a popular legislative initiative has some utility, this bill also has more paths to failure now. Voters won't blame Joe Manchin now if the bill fails; they'll blame all Democrats, which would surely usher in a Republican Congress, and also a fascist one. Regardless of Democrats' good or evil intentions, our task is the same: we tell them to do the right thing, and not the "politically safe" thing that is actually the politically poisonous thing. We tell them, if you can bear another sports metaphor, to stop going into the prevent defense with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, because you know what they say? The prevent defense prevents winning.
As always, use the tools in the upper right-hand corner of this page (or, if you're on a cellphone, the bottom of this page) to find your Congressfolk's contact info. Good luck and God bless.