Unhappy Days Are Here Again

“The American people voted for change and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction,” said a triumphant Nancy Pelosi upon becoming the new Speaker of the House. This might well turn out to be a case of being careful what you wish for, lest it come true.Not only is Pelosi herself radical, but many of the powerful Democratic committee chairmen-in-waiting are members in good standing of what veteran bipartisan presidential advisor David Gergen has called the “loony Left.”Much of American commerce that depends on innovative science and technology will likely suffer in the new regime — biotechnology, nanotechnology, and pharmaceutical R&D, to name just a few sectors. Many senior Democratic members of Congress and their staffs are relentlessly anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-business. Worst of all, they’re uneducable. They remind me of the reputation of France’s King Charles II, about whom it was said that he never learned anything and never forgot anything. From my days as an official at the FDA during the ’80s and early ’90s, when the Democrats were in the congressional majority, I recall the incessant, uninformed, and highly politicized meddling by prominent members of Congress. They did incalculable damage to science and technology. And now they’re back.A few examples:In 1989, Sen. Patrick Leahy, then chairman of the Agriculture Committee, complained to the FDA commissioner about the agency’s supposedly cavalier, insufficiently rigorous review of an important veterinary drug called bovine somatotropin, or bST, which boosts the milk production of dairy cows. Soon thereafter, he and other members of Congress asked the General Accounting Office to conduct a study of the agency’s bST review process. Leahy even expressed concern that it would be so effective that it could challenge the federal price-support system. Congressman John Conyers, then chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, joined with Leahy to pressure the FDA not to approve bST, raising scientifically implausible concerns about the product’s safety.All of these concerns about bST were baseless. The drug underwent one of the most lengthy and comprehensive regulatory reviews in history. Used widely, successfully and safely for two decades, it markedly increases productivity: It allows farmers to produce the same amount of milk with fewer cows and milking machines, less barn space, and fewer veterinarian visits, vaccines, and so on. But Conyers has continued his mindless crusade, endorsing an anti-bST book as recently as this year.Largely as a result of the misguided efforts and bullying of Leahy and Conyers — and regulators’ fear of the two powerful congressmen — the FDA’s review of this excellent veterinary drug took nine years, while the evaluation of an almost identical product for injection into growth-hormone-deficient children had taken a mere 18 months.Leahy is now slated to become the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, while Conyers is expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee.During the 1980s, Congressman John Dingell, then-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, interfered constantly in federal agencies’ domestic policy-making, as well as their attempts to hammer out international agreements on the regulation of agricultural biotechnology under the auspices of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Dingell and his committee’s investigators harassed scientists from various regulatory agencies (of whom I was one), although they had no understanding of the subject area and were, in fact, lobbying against both a sound scientific approach and U.S. interests. In carrying out the committee’s oversight role over the FDA, the imperious Dingell acted as a kind of self-appointed Grand Inquisitor. He and his staff continually summoned agency officials to humiliating and abusive hearings and demanded that they produce mountains of documents on unrealistically short deadlines. Committee staffers even appeared personally and unannounced at FDA headquarters and helped themselves to documents that the agency (and federal law) considered to be confidential business information and, therefore, off limits.Most deplorable of all was Dingell’s McCarthy-esque practice of unfairly impugning individuals during punitive hearings. He managed to bring down two eminent university heads — David Baltimore of Rockefeller University and Donald Kennedy of Stanford — who, although eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, lost their presidencies due to his charges. Dingell will return as the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will again put him in charge of oversight over the FDA. An octogenarian now, he has lost much of his vigor and mental acuity but none of his malice.The week after the November election saw repeated saccharine promises of comity and cooperation between the White House and the new Democratic leadership of the Congress. To anyone who believes these declarations have an iota of credibility: I can sell you part ownership in a beautiful, iconic bridge that connects House Speaker Pelosi’s San Francisco district with Marin County to the north.A colleague of mine, a highly respected political scientist (and a Democrat), predicts that the new congressional leadership will avoid “wild-eyed, crazy stuff,” in order not to alienate the political center. He’s probably right about such high-profile actions as impeachment of President Bush or repeal of the Patriot Act. But most of Congress’s day-to-day legislative and oversight work — the vast majority of which occurs out of public view — will resemble the bad old days of vitriolic partisan clashes. Hearings on oversight of regulatory agencies, in particular, will be very ugly. As you will soon see aplenty, Mark Twain had it right: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />