John Ashcroft's Drug Money

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On Sept. 30, the Ashcroft Victory Committee received a $50,000 campaign contribution from the Schering-Plough Corp., a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant.

What a coincidence.

It turns out that our own U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft is one of just nine senators sponsoring a highly controversial piece of legislation, SB 1172, which would extend patent rights on eight drugs, including the allergy drug Claritin, which is manufactured by none other than Schering-Plough. If the Claritin patents are allowed to expire as scheduled, in 2002, generic-drug manufacturers could provide competition that would sharply lower prices for consumers.

Were it to become law, SB 1172 would cost consumers and taxpayers roughly $11 billion in higher prescription costs over a 10-year period, according to a study by the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. The study found that extending Schering-Plough's monopoly on Claritin alone would mean an additional $9.64 billion in revenues to the drug company.

A coincidence? Well, we can only assume it must be, given what David James, Ashcroft 2000 communications director, told me Tuesday about the relationship between the campaign donation and his support of SB 1172.

"There is no relationship," James said. "We support the bill on the merits. Our staff has studied it, and we believe it's good legislation.

"All this bill does is extend the right of a company to apply for additional time on its patents. It doesn't do anything for any one company."

That, of course, would be news to the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. But, assuming the academics are misinformed and SB 1172 really "doesn't do anything" for Schering-Plough, why would this New Jersey company be so generous to a Missouri senator?

"You'd have to ask them," James said. "We support this bill on its merits."

James added that "some of the proponents out there who are lobbing these bricks ought to be careful about who they're lobbing the bricks at." He pointed out that the bill's author is a Democrat, Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who has himself received "at least $10,000" from Schering-Plough.

Actually, James has understated a great point. Campaign records show that Sen. Torricelli, considered a liberal, has received at least $15,000 in direct donations and another $50,000 in soft money from the company.

Now, I couldn't reach company officials for an explanation of how they just happen to be dropping $50,000 campaign gifts on senators who just happen to be supporting legislation worth $9.64 billion to them. But let's assume it's the usual stance: They just admire the political philosophy of these fine public servants and support them in their wonderful work.

Interesting. In terms of political philosophy, Torricelli -- pro-choice, anti-NRA and rated second to none in his liberal voting record on social issues -- couldn't be further from Ashcroft, who is proudly among the Senate's staunchest social conservatives. Why, Torricelli was even in St. Louis just last month to raise funds for Gov. Mel Carnahan, Ashcroft's challenger in this year's Senate race.

If these monster campaign gifts aren't all about SB 1172, Schering-Plough is one Slinky of a flexible donor when it comes to political philosophy -- or shall we just call the company a bipartisan purchaser of politicians?

Obviously SB 1172 is not your everyday bill, and $50,000 in soft money is not your everyday campaign gift.

Although it has received scant coverage locally, the battle over SB 1172 (and its House counterpart) has been furious. Schering-Plough spent $4 million in 1998 alone in lobbying Congress, according to Time, and an opposition coalition of consumer and seniors' groups and generic-drug companies has had the highly unusual success of persuading six members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Cape Girardeau), to withdraw co-sponsorship of the bill in the past year.

Schering-Plough has already received two patent extensions of two years each but says the additional three-year extension proposed by SB 1172 is needed for the company to recover research-and-development costs lost for Claritin as a result of previous delays in securing FDA approval for the drug. Claritin has $1.8 billion in sales nationally and $3 billion worldwide.

Every day the company enjoys patent protection is a day that generic-drug makers cannot offer consumers a cheaper alternative, and at $1.8 billion annually, those days are worth $5 million apiece in the U.S. alone. Dr. Stephen W. Schondelmeyer of the University of Minnesota did the math.

"Using Claritin as a case study, Dr. Schondelmeyer finds that a 3-year delay in generic competition for Claritin would cost American consumers $5.31 billion from 2002-2007, and another $2.05 billion from 2008-2012," the university reported. That's about two-thirds of the consumer cost for the eight drugs whose makers would be helped by SB 1172.

It's no surprise then, that Schering-Plough has donated $393,500 in soft money to politicians during the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Ashcroft Victory Committee has received only one other gift as large as theirs, a $50,000 donation from Anheuser-Busch.

Anheuser-Busch giving major bucks to a teetotaler? Well, at least it shows that Ashcroft, who banned alcohol on moral grounds from the Missouri governor's mansion for eight years, is pretty flexible himself when selling his political soul.

Of course, Ashcroft is all about flexibility in this election year.

Why, just last week he announced he has discovered a new election-year priority: spending federal dollars (like some wild-eyed liberal) to the tune of $40 billion so that senior citizens can have affordable prescription drugs.

"Prescription drug coverage is vitally important for millions of American seniors," Ashcroft said in a press release. He said he was responding to the concerns of seniors and other constituents.

Then again, there is the small detail that Ashcroft has voted against such prescription-drug funding three times in the past year and that this is the first time in his illustrious career that giving away billions in domestic federal spending has so excited him. This one's a pretty amazing stretch, even for Ashcroft.

Among the astonished is Larry Richardson, director for the Campaign for Fair Pharmaceutical Competition, the coalition fighting SB 1172.

"We sent lobbyists in to meet with Ashcroft, and they got nowhere," Richardson said Tuesday. "It's extremely hypocritical that he and other congressmen are now saying they're for affordable medicine, yet they're backing a bill that will cost consumers $11 billion in higher prescription-drug prices."

Hypocritical? Now, that's a little harsh.

Doesn't anyone believe in coincidences anymore?

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