Buried in the final conference report for the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2006 (H.R. 2863) was a provision providing a lawsuit liability shield for pharmaceutical companies. The provision was aimed at preventing lawsuits against drug makers working to create vaccines for biological attacks and avian flu, but went much further in protecting many more kinds of drugs. What’s notable about this provision is that no one thought it would be in the bill. The conferees did not sign off on it and the final bill was passed in less than 24 hours, providing little time to address the late night addition of this provision. This is our next case study for the Read the Bill campaign.
During the first year of the 109th Congress much attention was paid to the development of drugs to counter biological weapons and avian flu. The Bush White House supported the position that companies helping to create and manufacture such drugs should be exempt from liability lawsuits, in the event of side-effects, injury, or death. One proposal pushed by Sen. Richard Burr, the Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine Drug Development Act of 2005, provided a vehicle to pass liability shields for the drug industry and also created a new government department to work on creating vaccines that would be exempt from liability lawsuits, FOIA, and other open government laws. Burr’s bill passed the relevant committee intact but sat still on the legislative calendar.
Instead of pursuing the passage of Burr’s bill, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist sought to attach parts of the liability shield to the Defense Appropriations Act. The defense funding bill had already passed both chambers of Congress and awaited hearing before a conference committee. In the weeks leading up to the release of a conference report on the bill, Frist worked with drug industry lobbyists to craft and insert the liability shield language into the bill. The only problem was that they failed, initially.
On December 18, 2005, the conference committee met to hash out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation. Upon completing the conference report both sides agreed to keep the liability shield language out of the bill and left the hearing room to announce the details to the public. In most cases, that would have been the end of it. Frist, however, was undeterred, and after the conferees left the hearing he sought Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert’s approval to insert the 40-page liability shield language into the completed report. Unbeknown to the conferees, the report would include the liability shield.
The next day, fewer than 24 hours after the final bill was released to the public, the House convened to vote on the bill. Rep. David Obey, one of the duped conferees, called the insertion of the shield a “blatantly abusive power play.” Sen. Robert Byrd, another conferee, declared it an “insult to the legislative process.” Rep. Dan Burton stated, “This kind of thing should not be done at 11 at night.” The bill passed the House on December 19 and the Senate on December 21.
It was later revealed that more than 100 lobbyists were working on the insertion of the liability shield language. Three of those lobbyists were former staffers of Sen. Bill Frist. One of those lobbyists was Speaker Dennis Hastert’s son, Joshua Hastert.