Congresswoman Diana DeGette

Representing the First District of Colorado
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DeGette, Key Health Lawmaker, Eyes House Leadership

Nov 9, 2018
In The News

A prominent health lawmaker could be finding her way into the top echelon of House leadership as Democrats work to advance their health agenda.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) announced Nov. 7 she’s running to be Democratic Whip—which would make her the third-highest ranking member of the House—when Democrats assume the House majority next January. She faces an uphill battle in trying to unseat Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who’s been the Democrat’s third-highest House member since 2006.

DeGette is a prominent member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who was the lead Democrat on some of the most significant bills for biomedical research, including the 21st Century Cures law (Pub. L. 114-255) to spur new drugs and devices.

Whether she stays on that committee or ascends to a leadership position, her experience advocating health and drug policies will be a key contributor to Democrats’ goals of expanding access to health care. One of the major arguments that Democrats campaigned on in the mid-term elections was on lowering health-care costs, including for drugs, and protecting pre-existing conditions.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is largely expected to return to her role as speaker in January, said Nov. 7 lowering prescription drug prices is a top priority for Democrats—a goal that’s also high on President Donald Trump’s agenda. Her record of working with Republicans could be a bonus in moving bills across the finish line, a former DeGette aide and health policy analyst told Bloomberg Law.

“It’s not as if the Democrats have this sweeping majority, so you’re going to have to work across the aisle,” Rachel Stauffer told Bloomberg Law in a Nov. 7 interview. Stauffer was DeGette’s lead staffer for creating and driving the Cures law and is now a legislative and government affairs director for the consulting firm McDermottPlus. “What Diana brings is her experience in shepherding through and working on larger bills in a bipartisan ways.”

Committee Implications

DeGette was largely thought to be next in line to lead the health subcommittee on Energy & Commerce. The panel oversees programs for key health agencies, including the Food and Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The committee has pushed through major health bills, including the Cures law and the recently enacted opioids law, on a bipartisan basis. DeGette’s ability to work across the aisle would be “the major hole” she’ll leave on the committee, Stauffer said. “I would be hopeful that there would be other members who would continue to be open to working on these larger, more complicated and challenging issues in a bipartisan way.”

The Cures law was championed by DeGette and former committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in 2016 after several years of refining the massive law.

“She and Congressman Upton—I’ve never seen anyone muscle through legislation like they did,” Ellie Dehoney, vice president, policy and advocacy for Research!America, told Bloomberg Law in a Nov. 7 interview. “There’s no question that’s a loss for the committee in a lot of ways.”

On the plus side, DeGette would be taking those bipartisan skills to House leadership, Dehoney said. Both DeGette and Clyburn have been strong champions for health care, she added. “There’s no bad scenario. It’s just a different scenario.”

Brian Rye, a senior health-care analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, also noted DeGette’s history of working with Republicans to advance bills, most notably with Upton on the Cures law.

But Democrats who want “to keep health care alive as a key 2020 campaign issue may not be interested in bipartisan efforts with a president they really want to defeat,” Rye said in a Nov. 7 email.

The next year “will be interesting for the Democrats, because two things will be happening simultaneously: a legislative agenda and an intra-party battle to secure the 2020 presidential nomination.”

Medical Research Interest

DeGette over the years has taken a special interest in medical research issues. In addition to the Cures law, she also led veto legislation in 2005 and 2007 on embryonic stem cell research, and she’s currently working on a bill with Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) to reform the regulation of medical screening tests. DeGette also chairs caucuses on diabetes and abortion rights.

Those activities might take a back burner if she wins a leadership post. “I don’t necessarily think that she will take her health priorities and bring them to leadership,” Stauffer said. “I think she sees the role [of whip] as helping to guide and shape the policy in a way that will then turn out to be successful.” 

Based on seniority, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) would be next line to lead the health subcommittee, but she told Bloomberg Government that she expects to serve as chairman of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee.