Big Pharma Greets Hundreds Of Ex-Federal Workers At The ‘Revolving Door’

Yves here. Even though the revolving door has become so widespread as to seem like a “dog bites man” topic, it’s still important to name names and identify who is likely carrying the water of private sector players. And since the health care industry has long had the biggest lobbying effort in DC (the banking industry moved into the top spot briefly in the post-crisis years), there are a lot of players to monitor.

By Sydney Lupkin, Data Correspondent at Kaiser Health News, who worked previously at VICE News, MedPage Today and on health care related topics and did analytical work for The Bay Citizen and ProPublica. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. Originally published at Kaiser Health News

Alex Azar’s job hop from drugmaker Eli Lilly to the Trump administration reflects ever-deepening ties between the pharmaceutical industry and the federal government.

A Kaiser Health News analysis shows that hundreds of people have glided through the “revolving door” that connects the drug industry to Capitol Hill and to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Azar was confirmed Wednesday as  HHS secretary, joining other former drug industry alumni in top positions.

Nearly 340 former congressional staffers now work for pharmaceutical companies or their lobbying firms, according to data analyzed by KHN and provided by Legistorm, a nonpartisan congressional research company. On the flip side, the analysis showed, more than a dozen former drug industry employees now have jobs on Capitol Hill — often on committees that handle health care policy.

“Who do they really work for?” said Jock Friedly, Legistorm’s president and founder, who called that quantity “substantial.” “Are they working for the person who is paying their bills at that moment or are they essentially working on behalf of the interests who have funded them in the past and may fund them in the future?”

In many cases, former congressional staffers who now work for drug companies return to the Hill to lobby former co-workers or employees. The deep ties raise concerns that pharmaceutical companies could wield undue influence over drug-related legislation or government policy.

“You’ll take the call because you’ve got a friendly relationship,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research and a former congressional staffer. “You’ll take the call because these people are going to help you in your future career [and] get you a job making three times as much.”

A 2012 Sunlight Foundation investigation found that, on average, a chief of staff on the Hill could increase his or her salary 40 percent by moving to the private sector.

Experts say the cozy relationships don’t necessarily mean congressional staffers do favors for lobbyists they know, but the access doesn’t hurt.

When John Stone left the House Energy and Commerce Committee last fall to join lobbying firm BGR, he told Politico that he had consulted with two lobbyists at BGR “for advice on basically everything that came across my desk.”

KHN’s review of Legistorm data indicates that one of the lobbyists, BGR’s Ryan Long, overlapped with Stone on the House panel. Brent Del Monte preceded them both on the committee and then spent 10 years at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), a trade group for the biologic drug industry, before joining BGR in 2015. BGR’s clients include PhRMA, Celgene and other pharmaceutical firms.

Like Stone, Long and Del Monte, many ex-Hill staffers working in some way for the pharmaceutical industry came from key committees, including the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which in 2016 shepherded the 21st Century Cures Act into law. The law faced criticism from watchdogs who feared it would make drug approval cheaper and easier but could lead to unsafe approvals.

Tim LaPira, a James Madison University associate professor who co-authored a book about the revolving door published in June, said the practice of leaving government service to lobby for industry isn’t as corrupt as it seems. Rather, as congressional staffs have shrunk over time, they’ve been forced to essentially outsource expertise to lobbyists, he said.

“Don’t tell the private sector to stop doing it. Tell Congress to stop relying on the private sector so much,” LaPira said, adding that Congress spends just 0.5 percent of the discretionary budget on itself.

The number of congressional employees declined by more than 7,000 people — about 27 percent — from 1979 to 2015, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research group.

While there’s a fear that lobbyists are slipping industry-friendly language into legislation, LaPira explained, more often they’re monitoring what’s happening inside government.

The reverse-revolving door, in which former pharmaceutical employees enter public service, is not as clearly understood. Neither is the flow of serial revolvers, who go from industry to government and back.

Some of those Hill staffers, according to financial disclosures, maintain drug industry pensions and stock, Kaiser Health News found. They are not required to divest and are required to disclose those connections only if they hold key positions.

Reverse revolvers may not realize they’re doing Big Pharma’s bidding, Friedly said, but they’ve been so exposed to the industry’s point of view that their implicit biases may seep into their legislative work.

The revolving door operates beyond the Hill, however, LaPira said

In addition to Azar, several former drug industry officials have landed key jobs in Trump’s Cabinet and administration, including Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a former venture capitalist with deep ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

Gottlieb disclosed serving on boards of several pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline and Daiichi Sankyo, prior to returning to government for his third trip through the revolving door.

KHN also reviewed the résumés of more than 100 HHS appointees, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by American Oversight, a nonprofit founded to hold government officials accountable. Although only a handful of recent appointees were employed directly by drug companies, more than a dozen had worked as lobbyists, consultants and lawyers on behalf of pharmaceutical firms.

The high-level HHS appointees include: Keagan Lenihan, a former lobbyist for drug distributor McKesson who now serves as senior counselor to the secretary at HHS; former PhRMA lobbyist John O’Brien, now deputy assistant secretary of health policy for the agency’s Planning and Evaluation arm; and former Bristol-Myers Squibb lobbyist Mary-Sumpter Lapinski, an attorney in the HHS secretary’s office.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren expressed concerns about the revolving door during Azar’s confirmation hearing before the HELP committee in November. Not long after telling Azar that his “résumé reads like a how-to manual for profiting from government service,” she asked him whether drug industry CEOs should be held accountable when the companies they run break the law. He did not answer yes or no.

His reply: “I’m satisfied with our discussion.”


Kaiser Health News obtained revolving-door and lobbying disclosure data from Legistorm, a for-profit, nonpartisan congressional research firm based in Washington, D.C.

The revolving-door data include congressional staffers’ jobs on and off Capitol Hill. It is current through August 2017 and dates to 2001. For lobbyists who did not directly work for pharmaceutical firms but worked for lobbying firms on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and their trade groups, Kaiser Health News used lobbying disclosure data to identify individuals registered to lobby on behalf of these clients. Reporters then tracked down these lobbyists in Legistorm’s revolving door data and checked them by hand.

The HHS appointee résumés obtained by American Oversight covered individuals appointed from Jan. 20 to July 12, 2017.

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  1. ahab

    Thanks for posting this Yves.
    The link within the article about Scott Gottlie makes for fascinating skimming…
    Originally trained as an Internal Medicine doc, one of his top affiliations is now to the American Enterprise Institute – a place where all of us docs aspire to go/snark.

    I was pleased to see however, that he does still have loans outstanding to Navient – guess he was too busy to pay them off.

  2. Chauncey Gardiner

    Recall reading many years ago that there was a law that banned employees of federal regulatory agencies from employment or accepting remuneration from entities they were responsible for regulating for a period of time after their federal employment. As I recall, that time period was for a year or two. Although enforcement of that provision would not absolutely prevent abuses such as we have seen in the flow of people between cabinet and other senior government administrative positions and white shoe law firms, it might curtail the sheer magnitude of this racket and would deliver a clear message concerning expectations of ethical conduct. Difficult to see how it might be implemented, of course, when congresscritters go on to work as highly paid corporate lobbyists in the Swamp as the expected next step after their “public service”; and presidents and former central bank chairs are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a speech or millions for a book deal.

    1. Listener

      The first congress critter who introduces a bill that makes it mandatory that ANY federal employee who leaves his job for any reason must wait five years before becoming a lobbyist will probably be tossed from congress the same day. This used to be kept quiet, under the radar so to speak. Now they’re in your face and make no attempt to hide it. It’s a mess. More of a cesspool than a swamp I’d say.

  3. VietnamVet

    This is the way the system was setup. The Civil Service reforms made federal jobs nearly permanent to avoid corruption. This system is now degrading into third world pay to play. The political positions are necessarily revolving doors since participants need outside paying jobs when the other political party retakes control. With the rise of the current reigning ideology that money justifies anything, Ivy Leaguers have lost any sense of noblesse oblige. The social contract is gone. They are the aggressive drivers on today’s toll roads who need not worry about the law.

  4. Dune Navigator

    If corporations can be defined legally as persons and enjoy free speech rights and equal protection under the law (14th amendment). Doesn’t this imply that if they are owned by their shareholders that they are slaves and should thus be made free from that yoke (erm, nationalized) as per the 13th amendment which abolished slavery?
    Free the French Fries! Ketchup, sail away!
    – Dune Navigator, PhD

  5. Dune Navigator

    Although my heart goes out to everyone who has ever been abused sexually, physically, spiritually, or intellectually by people in positions of authority, I must say that #MeToo strikes me as a rather anodyne measure to release social pressure. On the surface may seem to be similar to various social events/movements that preceded it. However, #Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter were movements that came outside the existing power structure. These prior movements threatened the existing power structure by questioning the view of governance (held by both liberal and conservative elite) that the state should be whithered to the extent that it exists solely to maximize corporate profit and to protect wealth. As such, the #MeToo movement, lead by celebrities, i.e. those within the existing power structure, who serve it, is a sad distraction from the real work that society needs to accomplish. For, after all, “hurt people hurt people”. And post-industrial capitalism/neoliberalism engenders greed and insecurity, driving them to seek trophies and baubles at the expense of a meaningfully spent existence on this Earth. Unless the basis upon which structural racism, misogyny, and most other evils is addressed, i.e. the contradictions of capitalism, there will come a point when sensationalism and witchhunts will not be sufficient to put out the fire.

  6. Willem

    Nothing new there, unfortunately.

    In 2015 Obama appointed Robert Califf as new head of the FDA. Califf, cardiologist from Duke University, previously headed a trial (Johnson and Johnson) on anticoagulation where the (to be marketed) anticoagulant drug was compared with badly controlled warfarin, and turned out to be (but only under that condition) just as good as warfarin. Which was good enough for the FDA. Now that drug (xarelto) is a blockbuster for the company, not necessarily for the patient.

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