Atrios quotes Bill Schneider of AEI as saying that Eli Lilly — the beneficiary of the thimerosal rider on the Homeland Security bill — bought thousands of copies of a book by Bill Frist — the author of the amendment — “to distribute to its customers.” If this is true, the impropriety could hardly be more obvious.
Of course, the money couldn’t possibly have been important to multi-millionaire Frist, any more than the money involved in the White House travel office could have been important to the Thomasons. But there remains the fact of a direct financial benefit provided by a company that gained enormously from an especially sneaky legislative maneuver to a Senator involved in that maneuver. [But see the update below.] And of course the benefit to Frist of having his book distributed was more than financial; his Presidential ambitions have never been a secret.
In any case, the press has a well-documented tendency to prefer small, simple financial scandals — or even non-scandals, such as the one involving the House credit union — to the complicated, serious stories about how influence is really bought and sold in Washington. And the link to the thimerosal shenanigans not only gives the story human interest but also means that it won’t go away, because the families, and Sens. Chafee, Collins, and Snowe, aren’t going to forget the promise Trent Lott made to revisit the thimerosal question early in the next Congress.
[For more on the thimerosal business, see here and here. To make a very long story short: Some people think that the very rapid rise in the incidence of autism over the past decade has something to do with the expanding number of childhood vaccinations, and in particular the use of a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, made by Eli Lilly and eliminated from the vaccines in 1999. Liability claims against vaccine manufacturers are barred by something called the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which sets up a no-fault compensation system instead. But it’s not clear that a vaccine additive such as thimerosal would be covered by VICP, leaving Lilly vulnerable to lawsuits. Frist proposed a bill to provide shelter for Lilly by putting additives under VICP. The bill never had hearings, but the provision somehow appeared in the final version of the Homeland Security bill. Even those who think that covering thimerosal under VICP is substantively the right thing to do have nothing good to say about the process. As John McCain said at the time, “I’m too old to vote for this kind of crap.” Moreover, it turns out that, due to what seem to have been drafting errors, the provision as passed does close the courts to the families but does not actually make them eligible to apply for compensaton under VICP.]
If Schneider’s reported assertion about the books is true, this is a story that might make a splash.
MSNBC confirms that Lilly bought 5000 copies of the book. It adds that the royalties go to two charities designated by Frist. That means that money from Lilly didn’t literally find its way into Frist’s pocket. I’ve changed the headline of the post accordingly.
My bad. I should have remembered that the Senate outside income rules require such an arrangment.
The Indianapolis Star, Lilly’s hometown paper, has more on Frist’s impact on the thimerosal issue. It also quotes a spokesman for Frist as follows:
Smith, Frist’s spokesman, said Lilly’s promotion of the book did not affect the company’s relationship with the senator.
“All of the book sales were handled by the publisher,” Smith said. “I don’t know that Senator Frist knew who was buying how many copies at what time.”
Gee, if we believe that, will you tell us another one?
Dr. Manahattan reports that the original Frist bill would have fixed the Internal Revenue Code problem; he doesn’t mention the time-bar problem. That gets Frist partly off the hook, but intensifies the puzzle about how those provisions got left out in the course of Armey’s cut-and-paste job, and why no one noticed.