In mid-November, as House Democrats were putting the finishing touches on their most substantial legislative package in at least a decade, the Build Back Better Act, dozens of Democratic House staffers traveled to the luxurious Salamander Resort & Spa in rural Middleburg, Virginia for a weekend policy conference hosted by a corporate lobbying front group.
Center Forward hosted the event, a non-profit organization run by corporate lobbyists. It has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months on television and digital. ads backing Democrats like Kyrsten SinemaJoe Manchin and Joe Manchin, who are blocking parts of the Buildback Better Act, including a popular provision that would allow government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.
In recent years, approximately 30% of the organization’s funding came from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Funding has also been received from the National Restaurant Association and telecom lobbying groups NCTA and CTIA. Center Forward is a c4 nonprofit organization and does not disclose its donors, so only donations listed in other organizations’ tax documents are known. Center Forward was funded by PhRMA $2.7 million2020, as reported by Daily Poster.
At a breakout session on “balancing competing legislative priorities,” participants divided into three groups to discuss how to “find bipartisan agreement on policies that achieve shared goals and help stabilize the federal budget,” according to a conference program reviewed by Sludge. The three breakout discussions covered “health care and government healthcare programs,” “energy and technology,” and “taxes and budget.” Each session was led by a corporate lobbyist.
Cindy Brown, Forbes Tate Partners lobbyist and Forbes Tate Partners lobbyist was the leader of the health session. Brown has publicly lobbied Congress for at least 20 pharmaceutical firms and industry associations so far this year. Brown, a Center Forward boardmember, has disclosed that she has lobbyed Congress on behalf of at least 12 her pharma clients. These clients include PhRMA (Merck), Sanofi, Eli Lilly, and Sanofi.
The Build Back better Act has been centered on intra-Democratic negotiations about drug pricing reform. The original version, known as H.R.3, would have permitted Medicare to negotiate prices on 25 brand-name drugs from a single source. These drugs are some of the most expensive in the country and would have been available to Medicare. However, the House passed the House’s 2019 version. The House adopted the amended version about a week following the Center Forward conference. This would have allowed Medicare to negotiate prices on 10 drugs starting in 2025. Medicare will not be able access the lower prices.
Brown also lobbies for healthcare industry group the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future and discloses discussing with Congress “Issues regarding “Medicare for All” related proposals” for the group. The Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future was created to oppose Medicare for All and is composed of PhRMA, drug industry group Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), health insurance industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans, the Federation of American Hospitals, and many more health industry groups. In 2018, Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future donated more than $500,000 to Center Forward, its only grant that year.
Jeff Murray, a lobbyist for FTI Consulting, 535 Group and the Lugar Group, led the energy and communications session. His clients this year included Facebook, Northrop Grumman, VMWare and Northrop Grumman. For Facebook, Murray lobbies Congress on “Issues and discussion related to online advertising, content and platform transparency efforts.”
Forbes Tate Partners lobbyist Elizabeth Greer led the session on taxes and budget. Greer has worked to advance the policy goals of 77 lobbying clients this past year. Greer is also a member of Center Forward’s board. She has represented many of these companies in tax-related talks before Congress. For example, for Altria she has lobbied Congress this year on “Issues related to tobacco tax” and on behalf of Walgreens she has been discussing “Issues related to global intangible low taxed income (GILTI),” a corporate taxation issue that has been part of Build Back Better Act negotiations.
After their break-out sessions with the lobbyists, the staffers and members of Congress observed a panel discussion on “Rethinking Global Trade and Supply Chains to Sustain Economic Growth.”
Paul Delaney from Business Roundtable was one of the panelists. He is vice president for trade and international policy at the association of Big Business executives. According to lobbying disclosures filed with the Senate, DeLaney has been lobbying Congress this year on “issues related to the Build Back Better Act” and other matters involving trade policy and taxes. The Business Roundtable, which represents the CEOs of hundreds of companies including Pfizer, BP, Lockheed Martin, and Nike, has been engaged in what it describes as “a significant multifaceted campaign” to kill the revenue provisions of the Build Back Better Act that are crucial to its passage. The group spent more than $12 million on lobbying in its third quarter than it does every quarter.
Geoff Freeman was the other panelist on the program. He is the president and CEO of Consumer Brands Association. This lobbying group used to be known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. It spends more that $1 million annually lobbying the government.
It wasn’t just lobbyists that the conference attendees heard from. Two NBC journalists, Senior National Politics Correspondent Jon Allen and Senior Washington Correspondent Hallie Jackson, spoke at this event. According to a spokesperson at NBC, Allen & Jackson were not compensated for their appearances at conference.
Among the attendees were Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s senior policy advisor James Lueschon, Blue Dog Coalition Executive Director Andrew LaVigne, and Energy and Commerce Committee staff director Tiffany Guarasico. While most attendees were associated with Democratic offices and some Republican staffers attended, others also attended.
Center Forward has an affiliate super-PAC that spends millions of dollars each election cycle to support the re-election conservative House Democrats like Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
Middleburg, where the conference was held, is known as the “’Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital’ for its foxhunting, steeplechases, and large estates,” according to Wikipedia. Salamander Resort is an equestrian-inspired luxury location on 340 acres with a 14,000-square foot stable. It offers a $85 wagyu steak and a $85 wagyu ribeye.