Biotech lobbyists' clout grows in Washington

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

The Biotechnology Industry Organization is still unpacking from its move into a bigger office a few blocks from the White House, underscoring the outfit's rapid climb to lobbying juggernaut status.

Nine years ago when BIO was created, it had a $1.8 million annual budget, 17 employees and represented 500 companies.

Today, it annually spends that much directly on lobbying, has a total budget of $30 million, employs 70 and represents 1,000 companies. BIO weighs in on everything from mundane tax bills to the contentious cloning debate.

Perhaps most emblematic of its arrival on Capitol Hill, though, are the enemies it has made across the political spectrum. Groups as diverse as Greenpeace and the National Right to Life Committee, the largest anti-abortion organization in the United States, accuse BIO of wielding undue influence on legislation they oppose.

"They're everywhere," said Joe Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, which often clashes with the industry over genetically modified food issues. "The biotech industry is a political force. It's increasing in clout."

Steps to success

BIO and the businesses it represents have come a long way since 1993, when two small and feuding biotech trade associations agreed to merge into one lobbying outfit. That same year, BIO launched its first industry conference, BIO 1993, which drew 1,400 people while 24 companies staffed booths in the exhibit hall.

BIO 2002 expects that many protesters this year along with at least 14,000 attendees at an event now a must for industry professionals. Some 1,028 companies will have booths this year.

"This is by far the largest event in the biotech industry's history," gushed Carl Feldbaum, BIO's president since its inception.

The organization has sprouted along with the biotechnology industry, which has grown in nine years from $6 billion in annual sales to $16 billion.

"We are not growing geometrically," Feldbaum said. "We are growing exponentially."

That growth is felt most on Capitol Hill, where BIO each year contributes an increasing amount of campaign money to both sides of the political aisle.

BIO's 3-year-old political action committee contributed $25,000 in "soft" money to each political party and an additional $31,000 in individual donations during the 2001-2002 election cycle, compared to a total of $18,250 during the 1999-2000 cycle.

While the $81,000 in total donations for the 2001-2002 election cycle pales in comparison to the more than $500,000 donated by its bigger cousin, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, there's still little doubt BIO's influence is increasing.

It spends about $2 million each year on inside and outside lobbyists and has put itself squarely in the middle of some of the most controversial medical and agricultural issues of the day.

There competing cloning bills are now before the Senate. One calls for a complete ban, while the other two would allow so-called therapeutic cloning. BIO has taken the lead in arguing in favor of therapeutic cloning, if used exclusively to help cure disease.

BIO has aired television advertisements -- including "Biotechnology, a Big Word Meaning Hope" -- in Washington D.C., clearly aimed at legislators considering the issue.

Feldbaum, who once served as chief of staff for Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has testified in the Senate and BIO has won over important Republican allies such as Specter and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

"They clearly have resources and they have influence," said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, which is campaigning for a federal law banning all forms of human cloning. "BIO is the most formidable opposition we are facing on this."

No vote has been scheduled, and Johnson accuses BIO of using its clout to keep the issue from coming to the Senate floor.

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