In a late-night move that could be worth billions of dollars to a small group of major drug manufacturers, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) inserted language into the fiscal year 2006 Defense Department spending conference report.
Shortly before midnight on Sunday, the leaders agreed — after House and Senate negotiators had already signed the report and announced its details to the public — to insert controversial language that protects vaccine manufacturers from product liability claims in the event of a viral pandemic, such as one caused by avian flu.
Observers familiar with the procedural history of conference reports said that they were unaware of any precedent for inserting language after conferees had signed off on the report. A review of several Congressional Research Service guides to conference proceedings make no reference to any prior example.
The language gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services the ability to suspend the ability of the public to file liability claims against vaccine manufacturers if he or she determines that there is an imminent threat of a pandemic viral outbreak.
If the law is applied as Frist and other supporters intend, it will represent enormous financial relief for a small group of largely foreign-owned pharmaceutical companies that have worked to promote vaccine liability protection. The companies include the Dutch vaccine manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, and the Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant, Novartis.
These companies have wielded substantial influence in Washington, D.C. Campaign finance disclosures show that the companies at the center of Congressional bird flu efforts have significant Washington-based operations, including well-funded corporate political action committees and a host of top lobbyists on retainer.
Employees and PACs controlled by Sanofi Pasteur, which Frist specifically mentioned during a Dec. 9 speech at the National Press Club outlining his avian flu plan, have made more than $83,000 in contributions to Republican and Democratic campaigns and PACs this year, including $5,000 to Frist’s Volunteer PAC and $5,000 to the Making Business Excel PAC, which is associated with Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
During the 2004 cycle, the company was also busy in the political money game, donating nearly $345,000 to candidates, candidate PACs and both parties.
Novartis has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions over the past few years, including more than $127,000 since the beginning of 2005.
This is not the first time Frist has come under fire following the discovery of controversial language being added to a spending bill at the last minute, noted Chris Mather, a spokeswoman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which opposes the language inserted on Sunday.
Democrats and moderate Republicans lashed out at the GOP leadership last December when it was discovered that someone had slipped provisions into the omnibus spending bill that allowed some committee staff to view personal tax filings of citizens.
And in 2002, Frist found himself on the defensive after he inserted language into the Homeland Security spending bill giving Eli Lilly Co., a major GOP donor, a liability shield. In both cases Frist and Hastert were forced to remove the language.
Sunday’s legislative push has already drawn the ire of critics who complain that it represents a multibillion dollar giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry.