How Big Pharma (and others) began lobbying on the Trans-Pacific Partnership before you ever heard of it


In 2009, four years before the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a widely-debated trade deal, few would have noticed a new issue popping up in a handful of lobbying reports. That year, 28 organizations filed 59 lobbying reports mentioning the then far-off trade agreement. Almost half of those organizations were pharmaceutical companies or associations.

It was an early clue as to which industry would take the most active role in trying to shape the trade agreement while it was still secret from the public. From 2009 until mid-2013 (the time during which the language of the agreement was still reasonably fluid), drug companies and associations mentioned the trade agreement in 251 separate lobbying reports – two and a half times more than the next most active industry (at least measured by lobbying reports).

It is an investment that appears to have paid off. The TPP is quite friendly to drug manufacturers, strengthening patent exclusivity and providing protections against bulk government purchasing (should it hurt profits). At the behest of the pharmaceutical industry, the U.S. is also pushing to limit the ability of national regulatory agencies to support generic drug development. All of this suggests that the active lobbying has paid off.

But the pharmaceutical industry is not alone in lobbying to shape the trade agreement (see Figure 1 below). Next on the list are auto manufacturers (101 reports), followed by clothing & accessories (89 reports), milk and dairy products (82 reports), and textiles and fabrics (82 reports). Figure 1 visualizes the top 20 most active industries, measured by lobbying reports that mention the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP by name.

Figure 1. Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation

Looking at the top 20 organizations (Figure 2 below) tells a similar picture: PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s trade association, tops the list at 44 reports mentioning the trade agreement, followed closely by drug giant Pfizer at 42. The Chamber of Commerce comes in third, with 34 reports, followed by the Dairy Farmers of America, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association and Yahoo!, all at 29 reports.

Figure 2. Graphic credit: the Sunlight Foundation

The requisite caveat is these counts are based on voluntary disclosures, and they rely on the organization to specifically mention the trade agreement by name in its lobbying disclosure forms (as opposed to something like “trade issues”). Still, the lobbying patterns shouldn’t come as a surprise: They largely reflect the interests that are most likely to be affected by the trade agreement.

Additionally, we can use Docket Wrench to see which organizations wrote the most public comment letters to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) regarding the TPP. Table 1 below lists these organizations, and each organization is linked to a list of its comments on Docket Wrench. For those seeking to better understand these organizations’ positions and arguments — and the ways in which they tried to shape the TPP in its early stages — these documents are an incredible source.

Organization USTR Comments
Pharmaceutical Rsrch & Mfrs of America 7
National Milk Producers Federation 7
National Confectioners Assn 7
Intl Intellectual Property Alliance 7
Emergency Cmte for American Trade 7
Corn Refiners Assn 7
Caterpillar Inc 7
National Potato Council 6
National Assn of Manufacturers 6
General Electric 6
Express Assn of America 6
California Chamber of Commerce 6
Telecommunications Industry Assn 5
Retail Industry Leaders Assn 5
Personal Care Products Council 5
National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn 5
International Dairy Foods Assn 5
Generic Pharmaceutical Assn 5
Coalition of Service Industries 5
California Table Grape Commission 5
California Cling Peach Board 5
Assn of Global Automakers 5
American Council of Life Insurers 5
Table 1
More broadly, all this early-stage involvement demonstrates just how dedicated these industries and organizations have been to trying to shape the agreement. Our analysis of lobbying reports shows who was working on the issue back in 2009, when the number of players involved was small enough and public scrutiny was so minimal that it was easier to shape priorities and language. Figures 3 and 4 below show which companies and industries were most active when. The general pattern is one of increasing involvement over time, though the charts also make clear which industries were involved right from the very start.

Figure 3. Graphic credit: the Sunlight Foundation
Figure 4. Graphic credit: the Sunlight Foundation

Hollywood has been involved in shaping this agreement from the start, and the movie industry has largely gotten what it wanted — provisions that bring back some of the pieces of SOPA/PIPA that could not pass Congress, as well as extending corporate-owned copyrights to life plus 95 years. The International Intellectual Property Alliance, a trade group that represents the film and music industry, has submitted seven different comment letters to the USTR regarding TPP. Here’s an example of one demand from a Nov. 10, 2010 comment letter:

[C]oncrete obligations for strengthening copyright enforcement, including: measures to address online and other infringements generally, and specifically, including criminal remedies for significant wilful (sic) infringements of copyright regardless of whether such acts are undertaken with any direct or indirect motivation of financial gain, as well as willful infringements for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.

Automakers (the second most active sector as measured by number of mentions in lobbying reports) are seeking broader protections against Japanese imports, and have major concerns about currency exchange rates. Ford Motor Company, for example, has recently stated that it will oppose the TPP unless it deals with issues of currency manipulation. It has won some key support in Congress for its position. Back in 2009, Ford listed 10 specific guiding policies for the TPP in a comment letter. Here were its top three demands:

  • Dismantle non-tariff barriers (NTBs), as well as tariffs.
  • Promote an accelerated tariff reduction mechanism or sectoral agreement for trade for environmental goods.
  • Require our partners to pursue market-based currency policies.

The textile industry has also been extremely active. As requested by the industry, U.S. negotiators are putting forward something called a “yarn-forward” rule, which would require that all important production steps take place in a TPP country — one way to prevent China from supplying cheap textile components to other Asian countries. The textile lobbying appears to have paid off in garnering support for the industry position in Washington. Back in 2009, the American Apparel & Footwear association was laying out the case for strict Rules of Origin in a comment letter to the USTR.

The dairy sector has been working with U.S. negotiators to try to open up the Canadian and Japanese markets to expanded dairy imports. As the chief operating officer of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) put it, “Opening the Canadian dairy market is a linchpin.” Back in 2010, NMPF wrote a ten-page letter to the USTR saying it would “continue to work with USTR and USDA as part of the consultation process for this initiative.” It concluded that:

We would also be remiss not to point out that if fully open dairy trade with New Zealand is a part of the final TPP agreement, it is extremely unlikely that a total net positive benefit for U.S. production agriculture could be arrived at given the existing agreements and the mix of countries currently involved in this endeavor.

The list goes on, but the basic theme is the same. Pick an industry with an interest at stake and lobbyists for this industry have likely been trying to shape the trade agreement for years. Not surprisingly, many of these interests have been kept in the loop by the USTR throughout the process.

By contrast, the public has been shut out of the process. The Sunlight Foundation, along with more than 30 other civil society organizations around the world, called upon the leaders of TPP countries last year to conduct future trade negotiations in “a manner consistent with the democratic principles and openness and accountability.”

While the lobbying disclosures and comments unearthed through Docket Wrench don’t prove influence, they do provide an important window into the importance of being there at the early stages of the process. And as is often the case in politics, the time to influence policy is at the agenda-setting stage. By the time an issue has become a topic of public conversation, the ability to shape it is far reduced.