Big Noise in the Mitten State: PART 2—And Then It Really Got Ugly
As I described in my first report in this series, it was following the Vioxx debacle that there was a resurgence of serious efforts to rescind Michigan's 1995 law providing absolute immunity from civil liability for drug companies. Grassroots organizations made up drug injury victims and their survivors were joined by bioethicists, policy analysts, and physicians concerned with public health and civil justice. Editorials across Michigan expressed virtual disbelief that we were the only state in the nation that had a law this regressive. Shock became outrage. An investigative report on WXYZ-TV, the most watched news station in Detroit, began: "In Michigan, the facts show that lawmakers are giving all their love to big drug companies, even when they slip up and make drugs that can kill you." The piece became even less decorous after that.
In fact, not all of Michigan 's lawmakers were enhancing their love life with pharmaceuticals. Four bills were introduced in the State House to rescind drug industry immunity. Republican Ed Gaffney, sponsor of the bill that had progressed farthest, was sanguine. It was clear that a majority of the House—including a number of other Republicans—would vote in favor of rescinding.
And then the counterpunch. A "Tort Reform Committee" was hastily created by Speaker Craig DeRoche to "deliberate" on the issues. One after the other, the national anti-tort all-star team visited Michigan during the weeks that followed. Since no bill comes to a vote without the Speaker's approval, Speaker DeRoche made it clear that a lot of "deliberation" would have to be done—miles and miles and miles of deliberation. Some of the members of the "Tort Reform Committee" publicly expressed their opposition to changing our law, even before the committee held a single hearing about it. It was clear that the noose was already well fitted around rescinding's neck. And the only real "deliberation" would be about when to kick out the chair.
Execution, in any event, can require prep time. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce went to work to ready the citizenry. Fliers excoriating all those legislators who had taken the lead in support of rescinding immunity showed up in doors and mailboxes throughout their districts. Glossy and eye-catching, the effort clearly required significant funding. The Chamber neither confirmed nor denied that much of that money came from Pfizer. What they did say was that is was costly, indeed, and paid for by contributions from their members.
As a Republican, Representative Gaffney was hit particularly hard. Along with fliers, the Chamber threatened to find a replacement Republican for his seat. In an interview that was part of WXYZ's report, Gaffney directly attributed the movement against his bill (and implicitly against him) to "lobbying by drug companies."
And so it went as Winter became Spring. Lobbying, deliberation, attacks, deliberation, threats, deliberation. Still, the groups supporting rescinding did not roll over. Helped by media, their message continued to reach many in the state. Partly in response—and because they had nothing to lose—the "Tort Reform Committee" eventually did decide to have one hearing on Representative Gaffney's bill. This would be a single, one-hour taking of testimony--the Committee's final act before the "summer recess" that would last a full five months through the November elections.
In practical terms, the hearing meant nothing. A little deliberation here, a little there, the hangmen were never far away. Still, the hour contained at least one moment that was genuinely memorable. Early in the session, now as a giver-of-testimony, Representative Gaffney remembered, almost wistfully, his initial confidence that his bill would "sail through." And then, changing from the nautical to the meteorological, he recalled "all the flying fecal material" that suddenly came blowing his way.
Indeed, the air around Lansing had become thick. Along with "flying fecal material" directed at Gaffney, Democratic Minority Leader Diane Byrum was singled out for even more special treatment by the Chamber of Commerce and its patrons. Suddenly, in early May, blazing red billboards appeared on all the highways ringing the city. Each featured the enormous outline of a stop sign, on which was written "STOP BYRUM." The billboards further exclaimed: "Representative Byrum's Prescription for Job Loss: More Lawsuits + Tax Hikes."
Representative Byrum had, indeed, been one of the most forceful leaders in the fight to rescind drug industry immunity. She was a logical target in that regard. Yet, because of term limits, she only had a few more months in office. But for the Chamber, it was never too late to stop her.
Personally, as I drove around Lansing confronting one STOP BYRUM megalith after the other, I could not help thinking of a scene toward the end of the movie, Spartacus. Kirk Douglas and his army of former slaves are making their way back to the Imperial City. The closer they get--soon they see it at every corner—the more they come upon the crucified remains of others who had dared disturb the peace. STOP BYRUM. STOP SPARTACUS.
The message was the same: Don't mess with Rome.
[To be continued in PART 3—Meltdown]