Senator Cory Booker has been facing intense political and media backlash over his role in voting down a bill in the Senate that would have lowered prescription drug prices for Americans.
Wednesday night, Booker, along with 39 Republicans and 13 Democrats, voted down a Bernie Sanders bill which would have allowed Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada. On the surface, it appears that Booker has his own interests at heart in voting down the bill, with most pointing out Big Pharma has donated well over $200,000 to Booker’s campaign – but that is not the full story.
Progressives and political pundits began thrashing Cory Booker and the thirteen other nay-saying democrats hours after learning how they voted. They taunted Booker as being a corporate Democrat, calling him a “fake” progressive and even urging Americans to remember this if a potential 2020 run for Booker starts to take shape.
But here’s the problem with our ever expanding social media: what the headline says is not the full picture. In this case, a brief look at the state’s pharmaceutical industry is required to fully understand the legitimate reasons why Cory Booker voted down this bill. I will give you a hint: it has little to do with the Big Pharma donations to Cory Booker’s campaign.
For years, New Jersey has been globally recognized for its strengths in the biopharmaceutical and medical device industry. As a matter of fact, 14 out of the world’s 20 largest pharmaceutical companies are stationed throughout New Jersey, providing jobs to thousands of people.
Mercer and Middlesex County are the perfect examples of how important pharmaceutical jobs are to the regions. Novo Nordisk is the second largest employer in Middlesex County, with their US Headquarters located in Plainsboro, New Jersey, where they currently provide 4,500 jobs. This is all coupled with the fact that pharmaceutical companies have provided high-earning jobs for individuals who obtain advanced degrees.
Additionally, with New Jersey boasting an extremely educated workforce, roughly 22,000 students with a degree in life sciences from an array of the State’s universities, it makes it difficult to ignore the deep ties the state has to the industry.
Though pharmaceutical companies have been a consistent employer of advanced New Jersey residents, they have also been leaving at an alarming rate over the past two decades. Recently, the company Roche made headlines for their slow withdrawal from the state due to the acquisition of another company, Genentech. This has become a common trend with businesses in the state, as U.S pharma manufacturing jobs have dropped from 20 percent to less than 10 percent since the early 2000’s.
Wednesday’s voted upon bill would have allowed the purchase of prescription drugs from foreign countries, in an attempt to lower drug prices in the United States. Canada has prescription drugs that are identical to the ones here in the U.S (partially because they were created here) but are sold at exponentially lower prices. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar crafted the bill in hopes of calling attention to the power of pharmaceutical companies and making a step towards reforming and restricting this power. Though in hindsight, the bill would have actually had no effect on the lowering of drug prices overall.
The Congressional Budget Office conducted a 2004 study in which they determined that allowing importation would reduce drug spending by approximately $4 billion, roughly 1% a year. Essentially, it would have no significant impact on lowering prices and would simply serve to get congressional committees to possibly take a look at the drug industry as a whole. In other words, the resolution that was presented by Sanders and Klobuchar was primarily symbolic and rife with political aims, but not much else.
Uncoincidentally, the Democrats who voted against the bill all had the same thing in common, which is that their states were dependent on pharmaceutical jobs. There was a clear correlation between the states where the drug industry is prominent such as New Jersey, Washington, and Pennsylvania and the Democrats who opposed the bill Wednesday night.
Surprisingly, Democrats refused to say that was their reasoning in opposing the bill, though most declined to comment. Senator Booker issued a statement that kept in line with consistent Big Pharma arguments, “I am committed to finding solutions that allow for prescription drug importation with adequate safety standards.” The main issue with Booker’s statement being in line with Big Pharma lobbyist language is that it gives the impression to the public (and potential voters) that he is being manipulated or paid off by Big Pharma. Consequently, during times of political anxiety and a shaky democratic party, looks tend to mean more than the substance behind them.
Booker had valid reasons for opposing the bill, and they go way beyond the familiar “corporate politician” narrative. This had little to do with his corporate donors and all to do with the fact that New Jersey has deep job ties to the pharmaceutical industry that the state relies on to provide people with quality, high-paying jobs. Success stories such as Johnson and Johnson revitalizing and saving Piscataway from an economic spiral and Bristol Meyers Squibb now being the second largest employer in Middlesex County are just a couple of examples.
These companies provide thousands of jobs that could be lost due to a vote such as this. While they’re legitimate fundamental problems with Big Pharma and their ever expanding lobbying power, this bill did not address any of those problems. It has become incredibly easy to pin the blame on any one politician for the failures of a healthcare system that has lacked crucial accountability in keeping corporate interests in check. However, Senator Booker voted this symbolic bill down to protect New Jersey’s economy, making him an effective senator and not a sellout.
Rutgers Student studying Political Science & Government with a minor in Journalism who has an interest in the intersection of journalism and political movements.