Health groups’ push to end donations may lack political punch

Trade groups stop donations to Republicans who voted against certifying election results

Lobbyists and PAC organizers said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is among the most impacted members.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Lobbyists and PAC organizers said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is among the most impacted members. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 21, 2021 at 5:00am

Corrected 6:10 p.m. | Big-name health care corporations and lobbying groups made a show of cutting off lawmakers from political donations following the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. But it’s unclear how long this penalty will last — or if the lawmakers who voted against certifying the election results will even really feel the blow.

Health care industry groups were among numerous organizations that announced a pause in donations to at least some Republicans. Blue Cross Blue Shield Association first announced its political action committee would halt all donations to the 147 Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying the Electoral College presidential results in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot. Soon, other major health care organizations followed suit. Both the American Hospital Association and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America announced they would not donate to the Republicans in question.

“The actions that took place violate the values of our nation and the values held by America’s biopharmaceutical research companies. It's time to come together as one nation and address the difficult challenges we face,” PhRMA CEO Steve Ubl said in a statement.

Other major drugmakers and insurers, such as Gilead Sciences, Amgen and United Health, decided to temporarily end political giving to all candidates on both sides of the aisle until they further evaluate the situation. CVS Health and America’s Health Insurance Plans said they will review their policies but haven’t taken any definitive action yet.

The companies condemned the violence and urged lawmakers to unite the country. Some seemed to express enthusiasm for the change in administrations.

“Amgen looks forward to working with President-elect Biden and lawmakers in both parties to ensure that patients have affordable access to medicines and that our society continues to support the discovery of innovative new medicines,” the Amgen PAC said upon announcing a review of its donation policies.

The health care industry is one of the biggest players on Capitol Hill, but industry executives and lobbyists say the move is unlikely to impact how legislation is made in the new Congress.

None of the eight senators who voted to overturn the election serve on health care committees of jurisdiction. Of the 139 House members who vote to overturn the election, relatively few serve on health care committees. But some health subcommittee leaders may be affected.

Multiple lobbyists and PAC organizers said the most impacted members would be Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee top Republican, Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas; Ways and Means Health Subcommittee top Republican Devin Nunes, R-Calif.; Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee top Republican Tom Cole, R-Okla.; and Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee members Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, R-Ga.; and Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla.

But the bans may not knock them over. During the 2020 cycle, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association's PAC gave over $375,000to federal candidates and contributed to several candidates who later voted to overturn the election earlier this month, but the biggest individual donation throughout the cycle totaled just $10,000. House and Senate campaigns can cost tens of millions of dollars, so these contributions may not significantly change the playing field. 

PAC donations accounted for 5 percent of all political giving in the 2020 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“There is this sort of public consciousness that PAC dollars contribute to Washington as it is and you have to change PACs to change politics. But the vast amount of money used to change policy isn't from PACs at all,” drug industry lobbyist and adjunct New York University professor Andrew Barnhill said. Rather, most contributions to candidates come from large and small-dollar individual contributions.

None of the health care groups said how long the new policies would last, and 2021 is an off-election year when PACs typically are more dormant. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle don’t have much of a need to fundraise in the weeks immediately after an election.

The National Republican Congressional Committee declined to comment on how these new policies will impact their fundraising totals. McCarthy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Since private companies cannot legally contribute to political campaigns, PACs act as proxies for a company’s interest and come directly from employees. These PACs give to members on both sides of the aisle but tend to lean heavily toward whichever party is in the majority. 

Over the past four years, the pharmaceutical industry relied on Republicans to lead the charge against drug pricing legislation that could end up changing their business model, especially the House-passed bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. During the 2020 cycle, Gilead gave more than 51 percent of its donations to Republicans, Amgen gave 57 percent of donations to Republicans and PhRMA gave 56 percent of donations to Republicans, according to data reported by the Center for Responsive Politics.

But now, health care corporations will have to work with Democrats more than they did the past four years, and multiple sources said these new policies will help them curry favor with Democrats they’ll need to lobby and work closely with in the next Congress.

Also, large health care companies may feel pressure from their members to respond to the attacks on the Capitol and suspending PAC donations could help quell these concerns, Ian Spatz, a lawyer with Manatt Health and former Merck executive, noted. 

“Some of the motivation behind these actions may be concern for their own PAC contributors who could stop giving if their money goes to lawmakers who voted for overturning the election,” Spatz said.

This report was corrected to accurately reflect the percentage of donations Gilead gave to Republicans.