The loony left takes over
“The American people voted for change and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction,” said a triumphant Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat poised to become speaker of the House. This might turn out to be a case of being careful what you wish for, lest it come true.
Not only is Mrs. Pelosi herself radical, but many of the powerful Democratic committee chairmenin-waiting are members in good standing of what long-time, bipartisan presidential adviser 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. From my days as an official at the Food and Drug Administration 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 their regulation. And they’re A few examples: In 1989, Sen. Patrick Leahy,
Vermont Democrat, then-chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, complained to the FDA commissioner about the agency’s supposedly too-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. Mr. Leahy even expressed concern that it would be so effective that it could challenge the federal price support system.
Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, then-chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, joined with Mr. Leahy to pressure the FDA not to approve bST, raising scientifically implausible concerns about the product’s safety.
All 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: Farmers can produce the same amount of milk with fewer cows and milking machines, less barn space and fewer veterinarian visits, vaccines and so on. But Mr. Conyers has continued his mindless crusade, endorsing an antibST book as recently as this year.
Largely as a result of the misguided efforts and bullying of Messrs. 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 took a mere 18 months.
Mr. Leahy is now slated to become the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, while Mr. Conyers is expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee.
During the 1980s, Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat, then-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, interfered constantly in federal agencies’ domestic policymaking and 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).
Mr. Dingell and his committee’s investigators harassed scientists from various regulatory agencies (of whom I was one), while lacking any understanding of the subject area and, 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 Mr. 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 confidential business information and, therefore, off-limits.
Most deplorable of all was Mr. 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, though eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, lost their presidencies.
Mr. Dingell will return as the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will again put him in charge of FDA oversight. An octogenarian now, he has lost much of his vigor and mental acuity but none of his malice.
A colleague of mine, a highly respected political scientist (and a Democrat), predicts 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 I suspect most of the Congress’ day-to-day legislative and oversight work — the vast majority of it out of public view — will resemble the bad old days.
Mark Twain had it right: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was an official at the Food and Drug Administration from 1979 to 1994. Barron’s selected his most recent book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.