Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican who has represented Huntington Beach, California for 14 terms on Capitol Hill, has a bummer of a nickname: Putin’s Favorite Congressman. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that, during a closed meeting of House Republicans, Representative Kevin McCarthy—another Californian and, like Rohrabacher, a stalwart ally of President Donald Trump—said (jokingly, it seems) “there’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”
Then, on Friday, the New York Times reported that five years ago the FBI tried to tell Rohrabacher that Russian spies were literally trying to recruit him, to turn the congressman into a Russian intelligence asset. He told the Times not to worry so much: “I can’t imagine someone in a position of power in the United States government not fully appreciating the fact that whoever he’s dealing with who’s a foreigner that he doesn’t know is trying to influence him.”
No biggie! Rohrabacher is totally onto the Russian spies. And for sure, nobody is seriously claiming that Dana Rohrabacher is taking money from or giving secrets to the Russian government. Except his quote to the Times is a little scary in its predictability. Psychology and behavioral economics say that Rohrabacher almost certainly doesn’t know how compromised he might be by years of friendship and meetings with Russians. “People think other people are more vulnerable to conflict of interest than they are,” says George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University. And if you show them the numbers that say everyone is vulnerable? “They say, ‘it’s statistics,’ and they always think they’re at the favorable end of the distribution.”
In this, Rohrabacher is Congress’ version of a physician getting called on by a pharmaceutical sales rep. The reps do everything from pay for super-expensive travel to conferences and big-ticket speeches all the way down to handing out pens emblazoned with drug names and buying cheap lunches. And all of it—all of it—increases the likelihood that a doctor will prescribe the drug, no matter how objectively good the drug is.
Now, this fact used to be tough to get at. Studies of conflict of interest were often small, constrained to self-reported surveys or single hospitals. Here’s a typical one: In 1992 a team of researchers at the Cleveland Clinic showed that 10 physicians invited to all-expenses paid symposia at vacation resorts to learn about two new drugs were vastly more likely to prescribe those drugs almost two years later. Duh, right? Except when the researchers interviewed the doctors, they denied that such a trip could influence them. “They appeared to sincerely believe that any decision to prescribe a drug is based on scientific data, clinical experience, and patient needs, rather than on promotion by pharmaceutical companies,” the researchers wrote.
Physicians continued to deny that they could be swayed by a laser-printed pen. Some—when they were students, at least—even insisted that the information they were getting from the industry furthered their education on new treatments. Medical journals and professional societies worked on ethics rules that might obviate conflicts of interest.
And then something great happened: the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare included as a provision the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which forced drug and medical device companies to report any payments they made to doctors. When all that data came through, ProPublica crunched it in 2016 and proved definitively that yes, “doctors who got money from drug and device makers—even just a meal—prescribed a higher percentage of brand-name drugs overall than doctors who didn’t,” wrote Charles Ornstein, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Mike Tigas.
An article that same year in JAMA Internal Medicine, also working with the newly available data, showed much the same thing: 279,669 physicians got 63,529 payments from drug companies hawking four specific drugs. The vast majority of the payments—95 percent—were in the form of meals costing less than $20. Prescriptions for the four drugs went way up. Not that knowing all this changes the opinions of many doctors. “In their minds, they turn what you’re saying into, ‘if someone handed me a wad of money I would do what they said.’” says R. Adams Dudley, director of the UCSF Center for Healthcare Value and lead author on the paper. “And their conscious thinking evaluates that and says, ‘nah.’”
So, confirmed, physicians who get little gifts and take meetings with pharma reps prescribe their drugs more often, regardless of the merits of the drugs. How does that connect to Rohrabacher?
Despite his background as a Reagan Republican who says he fought alongside the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, Rohrabacher now says the US is too hard on Russia. When Vladimir Putin wanted the name of a prominent murdered Russian whistleblower taken off the name of a law, Rohrabacher got it done. When people ask him about Russia’s terrible record on human rights, Rohrabacher is a whataboutist, pointing to human rights abuses in China and the United States. He suggested that once former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had resigned because of possible links to Russia, hey, maybe just leave him alone.
They’re doing something for you, so you feel like you need to do something for them. It’s difficult to walk away from that type of situation. George Loewenstein, behavioral economist, Carnegie Mellon
Rohrabacher has explicitly, vehemently denied taking money from Russia. But a gift doesn’t have to be financial—it can be power, or attention, or information. Even just becoming friendly with someone can open you up to feelings of obligation and reciprocity—especially if the person on the other side of the relationship has something to sell. “They’re doing something for you, so you feel like you need to do something for them,” Loewenstein says. “It’s difficult to walk away from that type of situation.”
According to the Politico piece that attached that unfortunate moniker to Rohrabacher, the congressman met multiple times with Russian officials, helped get them in front of other representatives. The Russians gave him information on the whistleblower that, for Rohrabacher, muddied the story of why Congress was putting his name on the bill. And once you start doing those kind of favors, it’s hard to stop. Every step you take past the line makes it easier to take the next one.