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Democrats hand Big Pharma something it rarely sees: A defeat

The pharmaceutical industry is not accustomed to losing major legislative fights, but with the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats overcame the lobbyists.


The obituary for the Democrats’ big reconciliation bill was written more than once, and the conventional wisdom was that the majority governing party would fail to follow through on a rare legislative opportunity.

And yet, as NBC News reported, the Inflation Reduction Act managed to get across the finish line anyway.

The House passed a far-reaching Democratic bill Friday to combat climate change, extend health care coverage and raise taxes on corporations, voting along party lines to send the legislation to President Joe Biden for his signature. Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act represents a major victory for Democrats ahead of the November midterm elections, capping nearly a year of on-again, off-again internal negotiations and defying numerous near-death experiences for the bill.

For all of the party’s many divisions, factions, arguments, interests, and constituencies, when the dust settled on Capitol Hill on Friday afternoon, the Democrats’ budget reconciliation package passed the House with unanimous support from all 220 of the chamber’s Democratic members — a week after the Inflation Reduction Act also passed the Senate with no Democratic opposition.

That, in and of itself, was no small feat — and is emblematic of what effective congressional leadership looks like. Indeed, Ron Brownstein explained in June, “Working with a razor-thin majority, House Democrats have recorded the highest level of party unity in floor votes that either party has reached in at least 50 years, according to the authoritative statistics kept by Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.”

Anyone wondering whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still a strong congressional leader should wonder no more.

As for the substance of the bill, we talked a week ago why this is arguably the biggest legislative success story since the Affordable Care Act, and The New York Times published a detailed and worthwhile review of the measure’s provisions. What’s more, for those interested specifically in the provisions related to climate change — this is the biggest climate bill the United States has ever passed — Hank Green did a terrific job summarizing the details in a YouTube video I’d recommend.

But for now, I’m also eager to point to one of the package’s most popular ideas: For the first time, Medicare will be empowered to negotiate the cost of some prescription medications with the pharmaceutical industry.

It doesn’t apply to all medications, and the benefits won’t begin right away, but nevertheless, Democrats have spent decades trying to get a breakthrough victory on this issue — and now, they’ve succeeded.

As a matter of electoral politics, Axios reported that this is likely to be a victory that pays dividends for the majority party as the midterm elections near, but as a matter of political lobbying, it’s worth pausing to appreciate just how unusual these circumstances are. Reuters reported shortly before Friday’s vote in the House:

Big Pharma spent more than any other industry to lobby Congress and federal agencies this year, a Reuters analysis shows, but is still on course for a major defeat by failing to stop a bill that allows the government to negotiate prices on select drugs.... [Enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act] would represent a rare legislative defeat for the pharmaceutical industry and set a new precedent for curbing drug prices in the world’s most lucrative market for medicines, according to congressional and industry officials.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but there are few constituencies on Capitol Hill with more influence than the pharmaceutical industry. It’s not accustomed to losing.

And yet, Democrats shook off the lobbying and delivered on a long-sought goal, which in turn will help many consumers.