There’s been a good deal of chatter surrounding today’s NYT op-ed written by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Schumer, a committed centrist, is suddenly sounding awfully progressive as he puts forth a “better deal” on behalf of Congressional Democrats, and his tone is reminiscent, at least vaguely, of what we hear on a regular basis from Bernie Sanders.
This comes at an interesting time for Democrats, as the left wing of the party—embodied by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—fights for primacy against the establishment neoliberal center, i.e. the Hillary Clinton faction. We saw this conflict brought to the forefront in the DNC leadership battle, in which Tom Perez nosed out Keith Ellison in a reprise of the primary itself. The divisions are profound, and it’s hard to know whether Schumer is actually pivoting left, or simply pulling an “overnight progressive” act to knee-cap the Sanders movement by co-opting some of its language.
In his Times piece, Schumer’s first pillar of the “better deal” rises in populist majesty from the morass of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. He writes:
Right now, there is nothing to stop vulture capitalists from egregiously raising the price of lifesaving drugs without justification. We’re going to fight for rules to stop prescription drug price gouging and demand that drug companies justify price increases to the public. And we’re going to push for empowering Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices for older Americans.
That sounds great. But let’s take a look at Schumer’s last Senate campaign, in 2016. According to Open Secrets, his contributions almost directly contradict his new populist rhetoric. Take a look at the leading industries, sorted by PAC money:
The top two contributing industries (by PACs) are insurance and pharmaceuticals, and five of the top eight are related to the health industry as a whole. (Individual contributions are harder to decipher—they can come from executives and other higher-ups, but they can also come from ordinary workers who happen to be involved in those industries, and in every case there’s a limit of $2,700 per individual.)
It’s important to note that Schumer didn’t need any of this money to win his election—nobody was going to unseat him in New York, and in fact he won with more than 70 percent of the vote. He would likely still have won if he took no money, and he probably didn’t need to campaign very much either. Still, when you add in his leadership PAC, those numbers go even higher:
And in Schumer’s case, even those “individual” figures mostly come from lobbyists—after all, which ordinary American is going to donate money to a Senator who doesn’t need his or her help? For example, Schumer made $65,050 in the 2016 election cycle just from individuals at New York Life Insurance. Now, take a look at how much money came from lobbyists:
In fact, many of those lobbyists don’t even work for New York Life—they’re hired by them instead—so the actual total given by the company itself is even higher than listed. And we know that of the money Schumer raised between 2013 and 2018, only two percent came from “small individual contributions.”
In total, Schumer has received roughly $1.5 million from health industry PACs, and another million from “individuals” (many of whom are lobbyists) in this election cycle alone.
Which is a long way of raising a simple question: If he didn’t need the money to win, why is he getting it anyway? The answer is influence, and as long as this cash flow comes in, every progressive word that comes out of his mouth should be viewed with the utmost skepticism.
Now, compare that to Bernie Sanders, who was running for president in 2016 and raised far more money, by an enormous factor, than Schumer. When you look at the health sector, almost $24 million was donated by outside groups to all presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton led the way with over $10.5 million, while Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio each raised almost $4 million despite not lasting very long.
What about Sanders? The answer: $25.
Meanwhile, the so-called “lobbyist” money he had received as of March 2016 totaled less than $4,000, and came almost exclusively from supporters who happened to be lobbyists, donating far less than the maximum. And most of those worked for public sector unions.
It’s also worth noting that the largest industry contributing to Schumer, to the tune of $8.6 million between 2011 and 2016, came from the “finance, insurance & real estate” sector, while the second-highest ($2.6 million) came from “lawyers & lobbyists,” which casts serious doubt on the second part of the “better deal” plan he outlined in the Times:
Right now our antitrust laws are designed to allow huge corporations to merge, padding the pockets of investors but sending costs skyrocketing for everything from cable bills and airline tickets to food and health care. We are going to fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces competition.
So, there’s a simple question we can ask Schumer: Will you stop taking dark money and super PAC money from the industries who oppose the goals you’ve just laid out for the Democratic party?
If not, there’s no reason to believe a word of what he wrote—true progressive policies call for more than just rhetoric, and Schumer hasn’t walked the walk for a single day in his long career.