The Daily Record

NJ Rep. Pallone Gets Big Bucks From Healthcare Industry

Daily Record — Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A Central Jersey congressman who played a key role in writing the House health care reform bill has received $321,000 in campaign contributions over the past year from the same industry the legislation is designed to overhaul.

That makes Rep. Frank Pallone, D-Long Branch, the top House recipient of donations from the health care industry in the 2010 election cycle as of Sept. 30, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Pallone hasn't violated any laws or ethics guidelines, and his supporters say they aren't bothered by the contributions because Pallone isn't shy about defying the industry.

Still, the contributions underscore a political reality: In their constant quest for campaign cash, members of Congress receive money from the very industries, labor unions and other interest groups they oversee, a practice that invites conflicts of interest and even criminal corruption.

"What this shows is that (Pallone) has an intimately close financial relationship with the very folks who care the most about how this legislation plays out," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington that tracks money in politics. "Whether that is unseemly or not is a question best answered by his constituents."

Pallone has received an especially large amount of campaign cash from the health care industry since January 2009 because he's chairman of the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lawmakers who head committees and subcommittees typically attract a wealth of contributions from industries and interests they oversee, campaign finance experts say.

Pallone's spokesman, Richard McGrath, said the industry's hefty donations haven't won it any special concessions from the congressman.

"The contribution reports confirm that campaign donations do not influence or affect Congressman Pallone's policy positions because they show no cause and effect between contributions and policies," McGrath wrote in an e-mail. "Everyone involved in the health care debate will tell you that the congressman follows his principles, not the wishes of the health care industry."

Pallone has received more than $2.5 million from the health care industry over his 20-year House career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

His congressional district is home to a number of heavy hitters in the field, including consumer products maker Johnson & Johnson and pharmaceutical manufacturers Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb, said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.

They donate to Pallone, a liberal Democrat, even though he doesn't have a history of supporting legislation that would benefit the industry, Baker said Thursday.

"They know that they are giving money to someone who is not on their side," he said. "It's very strategic on the part of some of these contributors. He won't carry their water, but they feel that discreetly giving contributions may reduce the level of hostility."

Pallone wins high praise from liberal consumer groups like NJ Citizen Action and Families USA. They favor a proposal to create a government-run "public" health insurance option to compete against private insurers, as well as steps to lower overall health care costs.

The groups highlight Pallone's staunch support for the public option, which the health insurance lobby opposes. The House bill would create a public plan, while the Senate bill would not.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said in a telephone interview that Pallone opposed the health care industry while crafting the House bill and getting his colleagues to support the measure. The 10-year, $1.1 trillion bill passed the House on Nov. 7 on a 220–215 vote.

Leo Torrey, who works to reform the health care system from New Jersey Citizen Action's South Jersey office, said he isn't worried by the health industry's contributions to Pallone's campaign account.

"People take money from all sorts of different sources," he said. "As long as they do the right thing at the end of the day, I think that that's to their credit. I can't stress enough that he has been an absolute champion for the citizens of the state in health care reform."

The campaign finance records show Pallone also has more campaign cash than any other member of the New Jersey congressional delegation — $4 million as of Sept. 30. The politician with the next-highest total, $1.8 million, is Rep. Steve Rothman, D-Fair Lawn. Pallone has said he is eyeing a run for the Senate.

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