Oftentimes, revolutions are noisy and people get hurt. But Rep. Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, is leading a quiet revolution where people are being helped—we need more of that kind of revolution.
Now in his 15th term in Congress, Upton became Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the venerable body with jurisdiction over much of the US economy, when the GOP took over the House from the Democrats in 2011. From this powerful post, Upton is leaving his mark, that’s for sure.
It is often said that Members of Congress are either “workhorses” or “shohorses.” That is, they are either willing to do the hard work of legislating or they like to simply show off for the cameras. If so, Fred Upton is surely one of the workingest work horses in the history of the American legislature. At a time when much of Washington seems paralyzed by partisan gridlock, Upton is getting things done. In the 112th Congress, which met in 2011-12, Upton, as the newly installed chairman of the “E and C” Committee, succeeded in moving no less than 40 bills through not only the House, but also the Senate, whereupon President Obama signed them into law. That success was continued and expanded in the 113th Congress, with 91 of Upton’s bills passed by the House and 51 signed by the President into law. As Upton likes to say, in his committee, every good idea is welcome, so long as it promotes his overall goals of helping the economy grow, modernizing and streamlining the federal government, and protecting and strengthening families and civic institutions.
Upton’s is a record of accomplishment that elevates Upton into a special category of Washington problem-solver. And now, in the 114th Congress, the Michigan lawmaker is poised for perhaps his greatest accomplishment to date. His new bill, the 21st Century Cures Act, passed the Energy and Commerce Committee on May 21 by a 51-0 vote. Yes, you read that right: even in this polarized and bitterly partisan environment, the vote in Upton’s committee was unanimous—indeed, according to BioPharmaDive, it was the first time in three decades that had happened.
The conventional-wisdom joke—although maybe it’s not so funny—in DC is that Members of Congress can easily find a reason a to vote against a bill praising motherhood and apple pie. But as we have seen, Upton’s legislative stewardship of the idea of medical cures is so popular that 100 percent of the members of the Committee, in both parties, have said “aye.” Indeed, it is hard be against the main provisions of Upton’s bill, which are aimed at encouraging greater innovation, supporting research, and streamlining the system to deliver better, faster cures to more patients. Those are the headlines of Upton’s bill; the fine print is available for anyone to read, too, right on the Committee’s website.
And of course, what could be more popular than cures? Who doesn’t want a cure for cancer? Or AIDS? Or Ebola? Or Alzheimers?
Another Republican veteran, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is among the many interested parties who have dubbed the Upton bill as “revolutionary.”
Unfortunately, Upton’s bill has now hit a potential roadblock. Congressman Tom Price (R-GA), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has set forth some procedural objections to Upton’s bill. Price argues that Upton’s bill, which increases “mandatory” funding for the National Institutes of Health, sets a bad precedent, in terms of increasing “entitlement” spending.
Like Chairman Upton, Chairman Price is a workhorse. Nobody on Capitol Hill thinks that Price is anything other than sincere and honest in his intellectual and political concerns about Upton’s bill. However, upon examination, Price’s objection seems small and surmountable. After all, the whole point of federal money is to spend it on life-affirming missions such as the NIH. As Abraham Lincoln said a century-and-a-half ago, the federal government should only be doing things that people can’t do for themselves. Well, medical cures are a great example of something that people can’t do at home.
Moreover, as the fine print of Upton’s legislation makes clear, the increase in the funding for the NIH is, in fact, “offset”—that is, matched with cuts—elsewhere in the federal budget. And Upton is most certainly a budget expert; before being elected to Congress back in 1986, he worked for almost six years at President Reagan’s White House Office of Management and Budget—so he is intimately familiar with budget tradeoffs. Indeed, Upton likes to say that while he was in service to President Reagan; he learned the Gipper’s enduring political wisdom: getting the job done right matters more than who gets the credit.
So no doubt, in the days and weeks to come, Upton will seek to find a way to satisfy Chairman Price’s objections.
If so, and if Upton’s Cures legislation sails on to enactment, as expected, we can all look forward to a new horizon of medical breakthroughs. It’s about time: For those Americans suffering from dread diseases, it must be frustrating, even agonizing, to see the news of exciting developments in, for example, consumer electronics and think about how those quantum-leap advances have so far been mostly bypassing medicine. For example, today, thanks to Moore’ Law, a new computer chip today is 133 million times faster than it was in 1965. And that’s why our home machines can perform such veritable miracles.
By contrast, in 2014, the Food and Drug Administration actually approved fewer drugs than it did in 1996. Imagine that: We actually are creating fewer life-saving and life-enhancing drugs than we did 20 years ago! It’s hard for us to conceive of what life would be like today if our computers and cell phones had stagnated since 1996. Indeed, it’s similarly hard to imagine why the American people have let this stagnation come to pass in medicine. But we have: the tragic case of the Vice President’s son Beau Biden, dead of brain cancer at 46, reminds us that we still have a long way to go. As Biden’s case proves, the real issue isn’t coverage; the real issue is medicine. Either we have it or we don’t; in young Biden’s case, we didn’t. And all the health Obamacare insurance in the world couldn’t change the fact that we didn’t have the medical cures that Beau Biden needed.
In truth, quite a number of diseases fall into the same category as the brain cancer that killed Biden: We don’t have adequate treatment. And that’s exactly the deficit—a deficit worse than the shortfall of dollars for the federal budget—that the Upton Cures bill is designed to overcome.
Indeed every American faces the threat of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). There is no cure for AD, and there is not even any effective treatment.
This is not only a humanitarian catastrophe, it is also a budget catastrophe. According to the Alzheimer’s Association Trajectory Report, Alzheimer’s today is already costing the American economy more than $200 billion a year; that staggering cost is heading towards an even more staggering cumulative cost of $20 trillion by mid-century. And since there’s no cure, as things stand now, all of that expense will just go for palliative treatment—that is, changing the bedpans of AD dementia patients.
Yet history shows that scientific and medical breakthroughs can not only save lives, but also save money. For example, thanks to angioplasties, stents and the humble aspirin tablet killer heart disease comes later in life than it once did. Just between 2003 and 2013, the death rate from coronary heart disease fell by 38 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And so the average American now has a couple more decades in which to work and be happy. According to the University of Chicago economist Tomas Philipson, the savings to the economy from better heart treatment run into the trillions of dollars. In other words, the march of science has generated huge gains—and not just in terms of dollars and cents, but also, of course, in human happiness
And, on the horizon—a horizon that will move closer if the Upton bill becomes law—new technologies are emerging that will allow scientists to “edit” defective disease-causing genes, replacing them with healthy DNA segments. This could give rise to medicines that would treat what are now intractable diseases, including not only cancer but sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. Once again, these exciting new treatments will save us money, for the simple reason that a cure is less costly than care; it’s cheaper to beat than to treat.
So if we can generate the same breakthroughs for AD, cancer, diabetes and neuromuscular dismiss that we have had for heart disease, then as a nation, we will be not only healthier, but wealthier. Indeed, if we can develop new treatments, perhaps we can sell them to the Chinese!
All this is possible if we can fully unleash the American life-sciences industry and encourage entrepreneurs and visionaries to work on actual cures, as opposed to mere treatment. And that’s exactly what Chairman Upton aims to do. Working closely with his committee, including the Democrats — because after all, who wants to get sick? — Upton has crafted a bill that experts say will really make a difference. As Upton says, “We have all said too many early good-byes to people we love and treasure. Every single person has a common goal: we want more time with those we love.” That is, indeed, an exciting vision. And yet because Upton is so low-key, not many Americans know about it. And perhaps they never will; in the future, all most folks might know is that they are living longer and better. But then, as Upton likes to say, quoting his mentor Ronald Reagan, getting the job done matters more.
Yes, Upton is leading a revolution—a quiet revolution of results, including, most likely, new medical cures And that’s not bad for a kid from little St. Joseph, Michigan, in the Southwestern corner of the state, who at one time had no greater aspiration than to be a sportswriter covering the Chicago Cubs. Yet time, fate, and, yes, the American Dream turned Upton into a public servant in the truest sense of the word.
So Fred Upton is leading his Quiet Revolution in Washington, DC. To a city grown cynical on low expectations, Upton is proving that men and women of good will can find themselves united in common cause, transcending mere party labels, inspired by better ideas and higher goals. As we can see, Upton’s revolution is bigger than any budget number or concept. His is a revolution of the American Mind, and a renaissance of the Can-Do spirit. And all Americans will be better off, even if they have never heard of the low-key chairman of the E & C Committee.