Report: Biotech buys D.C. clout

Its political spending, still relatively small, has mushroomed.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Saturday, July 12, 2003

The biotechnology industry transformed itself from a political neophyte to an emerging powerhouse in the last decade, fueled by a rapid rise in federal campaign contributions and lobbying, according to a new study.

Campaign contributions from pharmaceutical and agricultural biotech companies topped $7.7 million in the 2002 election cycle, up more than sixfold from $1.2 million in 1990, according to the report by the Center for Responsive Politics.

"The pattern ... fits that of an emerging industry that is enjoying greater success and greater influence," said Steven Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending in Washington, D.C. "It's actually reminiscent of the computer industry, which enjoyed a very quick rise in the economy and also in Washington."

Still, despite rapid growth, biotech's campaign contributions pale compared to what lawyers, retirees and real estate agents spend -- more than $65 million each in the 2002 elections.

And biotech leaders said the report overstated their clout.

The increase in biotech's spending on politics mirrors its emergence as an important national industry. The size of the industry doubled between 1993 and 1999, when it accounted for more than 400,000 U.S. jobs, according to a report for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

The economic influence of biotechnology is particularly important in San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Sacramento region, still a minor player on the national scene, is home to several small biotech companies and to the University of California, Davis, a major hub of agricultural biotech research.

The report from the Center for Responsive Politics, available at www.capitaleye.org, said biotech's political capital has been spent easing the approval process for new drugs and fighting to hold onto patents. The next big debate will be over proposed Medicare price controls on drugs.

But mostly, said Weiss, money buys access to leaders.

Biotechnology has grabbed the attention of the Bush administration, which already had a biotech bent. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman was a board member at Calgene (now part of Monsanto) when the Davis company developed the first genetically engineered tomato 10 years ago.

President Bush has been unabashed in his support for biotechnology, blasting the European Union's stance against genetically engineered crops. And he's reportedly considering a former Monsanto lobbyist for the top spot at the Environmental Protection Agency.

To groups against the spread of genetically engineered crops, the link is clear between administration support and biotech's increased political spending.

Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, said biotech's political spending reminds her of how athletic gear companies contract with sports stars to pitch their goods.

"The biotech corporations have hired Mr. Bush to propagate the myth of biotechnology," she said.

Dan Eramian, vice president of communications for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., said the Center for Responsive Politics significantly overstated biotechnology's political contributions by lumping in money from large pharmaceutical and chemical companies whose missions go beyond biotech.

"There has been some growth but not to the extent laid out in this report," he said.

Biotech's biggest campaign spenders are Dow Chemical, Aventis and Monsanto -- each doling out more than $3.8 million since 1989, mostly to Republicans, according to the report.

Biotech money spent on lobbying, the report said, jumped from nearly $22 million in 1998 to more than $33 million last year.

Agricultural biotech leader Monsanto and two California biomedical companies, Genentech and Amgen, reportedly spent the most on lobbying.

Monsanto said its numbers were substantially inflated by including spending from its one-time parent company, Pharmacia, which spun off Monsanto in 2001. Also, spending by drug manufacturer Roche, which owns a majority of Genentech, was included in Genentech's spending.

Monsanto spokesman Bryan Hurley said the money spent by Monsanto's political action committee comes from employee donations, not company coffers.

"It's an opportunity for individuals to seek out and support those leaders that have agriculture as a priority," he said.

Eramian said most of the industry's lobbying is done by scientists or CEOs who come to Washington eager to share the possibilities of their research to improve world health and food supply.

"Our clout comes from the work we do," he said, noting that Bush found the industry important enough to speak at a recent biotech conference.

"That didn't come about because we put on a fund-raising dinner for him or sent the White House a lot of PAC money. We don't have that kind of muscle," Eramian said.

His Biotechnology Industry Organization spent more than $14 million on lobbying in the last five years, according to this week's report.


About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.