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Congressman's New Job Is Top Drug Lobbyist

December 16, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The pharmaceutical industry on Wednesday named as its top lobbyist a longtime congressman who had been among those overseeing it. The new job is said to come with a $1-million-plus salary.

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, who exercised jurisdiction over the industry as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, will become president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America on Jan. 3, when he retires from Congress.

Obtaining Tauzin's services is seen a coup for the influential industry group, which faces consumer demands for cheaper medications from Canada and elsewhere and the fallout from fresh evidence of dangerous side effects from some drugs.

The appointment drew criticism from consumer advocates, along with calls for prohibiting lawmakers from negotiating employment deals while in office and for extending the one-year ban on former members lobbying their old colleagues.

The 13-term Louisiana Republican will go from a congressional salary of $158,100 a year to bringing home more than $1 million a year, according to a knowledgeable source. As a committee chairman in 2003, Tauzin helped to write the law to provide outpatient prescription coverage under Medicare.

"The appearance is terrible," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), one of the most senior Democrats on the panel that Tauzin headed. "A chief architect of the Medicare prescription drug legislation is now going to represent the chief beneficiary of the bill. This will only reinforce the public's disillusionment with Congress."

PhRMA Chairman Miles D. White said the industry sought a strong advocate in Washington. "We wanted a leader who has a background and a track record of dealing with complex and controversial issues in a constructive way," said White, also chairman and chief executive of Abbott Laboratories.

PhRMA had approached intermediaries for Tauzin early this year, when he was also being courted by the movie industry. Rumors about the job discussions made some of his colleagues uncomfortable, and Tauzin relinquished his chairmanship.

Then doctors discovered a rare form of cancer in his small intestine, close to his pancreas. Tauzin, 61, was sidelined for much of the spring as he underwent major surgery and follow-up treatment. He has said he is now cancer-free.

His medical odyssey made him more interested in the drug industry job, Tauzin said in an interview. "This is a mission I wanted to take on," he said. "Like Lance Armstrong, I've got a story to tell." The cycling champion's career was interrupted by cancer, but he recovered and dominated the Tour de France.

Tauzin acknowledged that it wouldn't be easy to repair the industry's image. "We're ready to face the fact that as an industry we need to do a lot better job of addressing family and patient concerns, to reestablish trust and confidence," he said.

Leading members of Congress have criticized the relationship between the industry and the Food and Drug Administration as too cozy, and not in consumers' best interest. Tauzin's former committee is investigating Vioxx, a painkiller recently withdrawn from the market after it was linked to heart attacks.

And the Bush administration is rumored to be wavering in its opposition to allowing lower-cost drug imports, which the industry opposes.

Tauzin will guide the industry's strategy for dealing with the new Medicare prescription coverage. If the government decides to limit the drugs it will pay for, or to push for deep discounts, that may put the industry at a disadvantage.

As a former congressman, Tauzin will be barred from lobbying lawmakers for a year. But that should not stop him from exercising influence.

"He can provide PhRMA with a strategy and members of Congress will know very well who is behind the strategy," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions. "Other people can go meet directly with lawmakers."

"This is the way Washington works," Noble said. "It is the classic revolving door."

Tauzin is by no means the first House member to become a highly paid industry representative. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 150 former lawmakers were registered as lobbyists in 2000.

He may be one of the more colorful, however. With solid people skills, a sharp sense of humor and a hard-charging style, he managed to succeed on both sides of the political aisle as a congressional power broker.

Originally elected as a conservative Democrat, he switched parties after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.

Public Citizen, the consumer group, said Tauzin's new post showed the need for reforms to make it harder for trade groups to enlist the aid of former lawmakers. The organization called for a three-year ban on lobbying by former lawmakers to replace the current one-year restriction.

"The largest lobbying operation in Washington has just raised the price tag for hiring the services of a former member of Congress," said Frank Clemente, director of Congress Watch, an arm of Public Citizen.

Tauzin's former spokesman, Ken Johnson, said his ex-boss followed all the rules in making his transition. "There was never any contact by the industry or any of its representatives during the Medicare debate," he said.

"Billy has served the public for more than 30 years. At 61, and following a near-death experience, he deserves the opportunity to explore the private sector and owes no one any apology."

Asked how much he will make representing the drug industry, Tauzin declined to give a direct answer.

"The question is not whether I'll be doing well," he said. "I was going to do well. I took this job because there is a mission involved, and I wanted something that would challenge and inspire me."

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