Friends with benefits 

Fiscal cliff deal provides windfall to Baucus donors

As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus is a powerful voice in Congress. The Montana Democrat's behavior during last month's negotiations to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," however, makes us wonder whether he is the ventriloquist or the dummy. Shortly before the cliff deal was finalized, Senate aides inserted a provision that would delay Medicare price controls on a number of kidney dialysis drugs, including Sensipar. When the bill passed, many senators did not even know the earmark had been added.

Amgen knew. Amgen is the world's largest biotech company and the manufacturer of Sensipar, and it immediately announced its windfall to investors. The delay will cost Medicare $500 million, most of which will go to drug makers. At literally the eleventh hour of negotiations to save the country from fiscal collapse, Baucus found half a billion dollars for the pharmaceutical industry.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

It's possible American taxpayers didn't need to spend that money. It is possible that Baucus exercised his chairmanship of the Finance Committee with something other than the financial health of the United States in mind.

At the risk of terrifying yourself, consider that Amgen employs 74 registered lobbyists to exert its will on Congress. One of them is Jeff Forbes, Max Baucus' former chief of staff. You don't need to dig into personnel records to understand the connection between Baucus and Amgen, though; all you need are campaign finance reports. Since 2007, Amgen and its PAC have given Baucus approximately $68,000.

That's a lot of money. Next to $500 million, however, it is also an infuriatingly small amount of money.

I am willing to accept the idea that my senator maintains close connections to the world's largest biotechnology corporation. I don't like it, but I am even prepared to compass the notion that he sometimes prioritizes that company over me. Still, I would like to think that such a gross abdication of his duties would cost more than a tricked-out Dodge Ram.

If I had known that the chair of the Senate Finance Committee was on sale for 68 grand, I would have gotten some friends together and bought it myself. If only the voters of Montana had known that $68,000 gets you $500 million from the U.S. Treasury, we might all have contributed 10 cents apiece and become national heroes.

Instead, we re-elected Baucus. We sent him to Washington to ensure that the government of the United States did not suffer some kind of financial/economic collapse, and at the very latest possible moment, he did that. He waited until his colleagues in the Senate had worked themselves into a frenzy to reach some kind of deal—any kind of deal—and then he added a half-billion dollar gift to the company that pays his former aides to tell him what to do after he stops paying them to tell him how to stay in office.

Last week, after The New York Times wrote an article about what Baucus and his fellows on Finance had done, the committee issued a press release. It is short enough to be quoted verbatim:

"The article in question is a complete mischaracterization of how and why this policy came together. There was no earmark or provision for just one company. Plain and simple, the provision is smart policy for patients, providers and taxpayers. The bipartisan policy saves taxpayers $5 billion and preserved seniors access to their doctors, while ensuring a lifesaving medical treatment will still be available for vulnerable patients who need it."

It is true that the earmark provision benefited more than one pharmaceutical company. It is also true that it was bipartisan; Baucus is a Democrat, whereas fellow Amgen cash recipients Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch are Republicans. "Plain and simple," though, I know of no evidence that delaying Medicare price controls saved taxpayers $5 billion, and none has been offered.

Those of us who enjoy the plain and simple will have to content ourselves with the Congressional Budget Office, which stubbornly insists that continuing to pay more for dialysis drugs actually costs money. We will have to weigh their word—and their actual numbers—against the "plain and simple" claims of the Finance Committee.

We know that Baucus took that $68,000 from Amgen. We know that in December, Amgen pleaded guilty to fraudulently marketing an anemia drug and paid the Justice Department $762 million—a record settlement for a biotech company. We know that at the beginning of this year, the Finance Committee let the Senate unwittingly spend $500 million to delay Medicare cost controls on one particular class of drug.

Against this evidence, we have Baucus' oath to well and faithfully discharge the duties of his office. He said that he would look out for Montanans and steward the finances of the United States. Maybe he did that, and maybe this expensive windfall for his campaign contributor really is "smart policy." I don't know, but I wish Sen. Baucus would give me something more convincing than his word.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net

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