More than a million spectators gathered before the Capitol on a frosty January afternoon to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama, who promised in his campaign to change Washington’s mercenary culture of lobbyists, special interest influence and backroom deals. But within a few months of being sworn in, the President and his top aides were sitting down with leaders from the pharmaceutical industry to hash out a deal that they thought would make health care reform possible.
Over the following months, pharmaceutical industry lobbyists and executives met with top White House aides dozens of times to hammer out a deal that would secure industry support for the administration's health care reform agenda in exchange for the White House abandoning key elements of the president's promises to reform the pharmaceutical industry. They flooded Congress with campaign contributions, and hired dozens of former Capitol Hill insiders to push their case. How they did it—pieced together from news accounts, disclosure forms including lobbying reports and Federal Election Commission records, White House visitor logs and the schedule Sen. Max Baucus releases voluntarily—is a testament to how ingrained the grip of special interests remains in Washington.
In the 2008 campaign, Obama declared his intention to include all stakeholders as he sought to reform the nation's health care system, but also supported key Democratic health reform policies. Among these were several that targeted the pharmaceutical industry: Allowing re-importation of drugs from first world countries with lower drug prices and providing Medicare with negotiating authority over prescription drug prices in the recently enacted Part D program. These weren't just promises, Obama had already voted for both of them as a senator in 2007. (Roll Call Vote 132 and Roll Call Vote 150.)
Set to carry out this agenda were two Capitol Hill veterans, schooled in the monied Washington culture, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina. Emanuel was a former fundraiser, Clinton administration official, investment banker and member of the Democratic leadership in Congress. Messina was the former campaign manager and chief of staff to the powerful Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus. Both were known for their unparalleled legislative abilities.