In the early pre-dawn hours of Thursday, January 12, 2017, 13 Democrats split from the majority of the party to join the Republican majority in the Senate in voting against a proposal submitted by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and co-sponsored with Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), that would allow U.S. citizens to legally import prescription drugs from Canada at lower prices. Most notable among the naysayers was Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who recently made a splash by becoming the first sitting U.S. Senator to testify against a fellow sitting U.S. Senator at the confirmation hearing for Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the new administration’s pick for Attorney General. The amendment was voted down with the final vote count at 52 to 46, with one senator each from both parties not voting. Meanwhile, 13 Republicans made a surprising move by defecting from the party majority to cross the aisle in favor of it, making the Democrats’ betrayal that much more egregious, since it had a real chance of actually passing.
Here is the full list of Democrats who voted against the proposal, along with the year their Senate seat will be up for re-election (see the complete roll call of all votes bottom right):
Michael Bennet (D-CO) – 2022
Cory Booker (D-NJ) – 2020
Maria Cantwell (D-WA) – 2018
Thomas R. Carper (D-DE) – 2018
Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA) – 2018
Chris Coons (D-DE) – 2020
Joe Donnelly (D-IN) – 2018
Martin Heinrich (D-NM) – 2018
Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) – 2018
Bob Menendez (D-NJ) – 2018
Patty Murray (D-WA) – 2022
Jon Tester (D-MT) – 2018
Mark Warner (D-VA) – 2020
Sanders and Klobuchar introduced the proposal during “vote-a-rama,” a special all-night session Democrats organized to force Republicans to vote on a bunch of non-binding proposal changes to reveal which parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) they might keep. Hence, the votes were symbolic – so those Democrats could have safely voted for it knowing it wouldn’t actually become law.
The policy has widespread support among Americans as a non-partisan issue: according to a 2015 Kaiser poll, 72 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing for importation of pharmaceutical drugs. President-elect Donald Trump also campaigned on a promise to allow for importation.
Republicans have already begun the process of stripping away healthcare from millions of Americans by vowing to repeal and “replace” the ACA within the first 100 days of their reign. This is somewhat ironic, since the ACA was the Republican health care plan to begin with – previously known and successfully implemented in Massachusetts as RomneyCare.
Sanders, who earned the nickname of the “Amendment King” for himself by passing the most legislative amendments in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives between 1994 and 2006, has been using this same legislative routine and strategy successfully for years to push many progressive reforms through a considerably right-wing legislative body that was adamantly opposed to any kind of progressive agenda. He also passed more roll-call amendments (17 total) than any other member of the House of Representatives between 1995 and 2007, when it was under Republican control.
Roll-call amendments are a bit of a staple of Sanders’ as a way to apply pressure on lawmakers particularly when backed by overwhelming public support, as it holds lawmakers accountable for their votes by registering them into the public record for their constituents to scrutinize. Now, because of Sanders’ newly prominent national profile as the de facto leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, unlike the previous 25 years, the public is actually paying close attention and actively engaging in the political process.
Grateful to you. Please know, a number of dems who voted no last night AGREE WE MUST IMPORT. But we believe basic FDA standards must be met. https://t.co/Xgpg5ISr1J
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) January 12, 2017
With the national spotlight on Sanders, he is able to call out the 13 Democrats who voted against the proposal, and this time, they couldn’t escape the very loud and public backlash from progressives calling them out for their hypocrisy.
The rightful recipient of much of the heat was Senator Booker, who faced enough public pressure and scorn thst he was compelled to respond to critics on Twitter as well as release a press statement in attempt to defend his vote. He tried to pass off his “nay” vote as a concern for public safety, insisting he was in actuality a proponent of importing Canadian drugs at much lower prices, stating that:
“Any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards. I opposed an amendment put forward last night that didn’t meet this test.”
The false concern over safety standards for protecting consumers is the exact same argument presented by the big pharmaceutical companies. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which lobbies against importation, maintains that it opposes importation because “foreign governments will not ensure that prescription drugs entering the U.S. from abroad are safe and effective.”
Additionally, the Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM), run by former FDA administrators, wrote a letter to Congress outlining their concerns about importation. In general, PSM doesn’t trust any imported drugs that haven’t passed through the FDA, with a bias towards foreign drugs and regulators as being automatically “suspicious.” To them, the FDA is the supreme authority, and anything else is considered counterfeit. Never mind that, according to Consumer Reports, “about 40 percent of the medications Americans use everyday are made outside the U.S,” and that “80 percent of all raw drug ingredients used to make medications we take in the U.S. come from other countries.” So, our drugs are already imported, and Americans have been ordering them without issue through Canadian online pharmacies regardless.
In the letter, the biggest counterfeit drug case PSM mentions involves a “$78 million dollar ring of cancer drug smugglers who sold illegally imported medication, including several counterfeit versions of the chemotherapy drug Avastin.” But PSM notes that the United Kingdom Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency informed the FDA of these counterfeit drugs. Apparently, the FDA trusts foreign regulatory agencies to catch counterfeiters but not to regulate their own drugs.
This safety excuse continues to be a tired, well-worn refuge for lawmakers who don’t want to ease the financial burden of overpriced prescription drugs for struggling Americans. Bills to legalize importation passed in 2000 and 2007, but expired after the Clinton and Bush administrations refused to certify that it would be safe. The Obama administration also cited safety concerns when opposing an importation measure in the Affordable Care Act.
A second amendment from that same session submitted by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), would have allowed importation pending a safety certification, just like the previous laws passed regarding the same matter. Like the Sanders amendment, it also failed. Senator Robert Casey (D-FL) highlighted that amendment to claim on Twitter that he voted “to lower drug prices through importation from Canada” while voting against the Sanders proposal, and Booker made a reference to the Wyden amendment in his statement as well. This is another well-used tactic from opponents of importation to mislead their constituents, as it is well-known to them that such certification will never happen.
As noted in The Intercept:
The safety excuse is mostly a chimera, as most of the drugs that would be imported from Canada were originally manufactured in the United States; they’re just cheaper there, because the Canadian government uses a review board and price negotiation to make drugs more affordable.
“My first response to that is show me the dead Canadians. Where are the dead Canadians?” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, once asked during his own push to allow for importation.
Democrats blocked importation from becoming part of the Affordable Care Act in 2009, with over 30 votes in opposition, because they feared it would have pushed the pharmaceutical industry to oppose the underlying legislation. They also voted in large numbers to oppose importation as part of an FDA bill in 2012.
As there appears to be a palpable correlation between big pharma donations funneled into the campaigns of certain Democratic politicians and the prescription drug policies consequently supported or opposed by these legislators, it seems feasible for them that the protection of maximized profits for big pharma would by assigned considerable priority above that of the public safety or health. It’s hardly a surprise that the lawmakers who voted against the amendment yet claim to support importation with reference to safety certification are among the top Democratic recipients of funds from big pharma.
Among the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry’s top 10 Senate recipients for 2010-2016 (list including Republicans shown left): Cory Booker (D-NJ) received $267,338, Patty Murray (D-WA) received $254,649, Robert Casey (D-PA) received $250,730, Michael Bennet (D-CO) received $222,000 – and they all voted against the proposal.
But it’s all about public safety standards, of course!