I face two problems with today’s article: controlling my rage and keeping it brief enough. On Sunday October 15th The Washington Post published Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein’s article The Opioid Epidemic: How Congress and the drug companies worked to neutralize the DEA. Later that evening the two lead segments of CBS’s 60 Minutes were dedicated to the same topic. The two news organizations had collaborated on the pieces. Let’s explore.
At its core this is a story of the corrupting influence of money in American politics. While the Republicans are more culpable, this is a story of a pox on both houses. Today I will name as many of the key players as possible including making negative statements about a few Democrats that I generally admire.
This is also another white collar crime story. As is too often the case the immoral and unethical actions are effectively immunized by making them “technically legal” or too difficult to prosecute. In this case the legislation at the heart of all this reporting took away one of the DEA’s most effective tools in policing drug distributers much more interested in profit than the repercussions of their actions: the DEA’s ability to stop a shipment to a retailer. A drug industry coalition led by the three largest drug wholesalers in America: McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen joined forces with several drug store chains including CVS and Walgreen’s in spending $106 million on lobbying including $1.5 million in donations to the Super PAC’s of 23 key legislators.
After about two years of false starts both chambers of Congress passed the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act by unanimous consent. That means no lawmaker objected and there was no recorded vote to haunt any legislator in the future. The bill’s lead sponsor was Pennsylvania Republican Representative Tom Marino, its lead co-sponsor Tennessee Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn and its Senate mentor Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. Mariano received $100,000 in donations from drug interests while Blackburn get $120,000 and Hatch $177,000.
Then President Obama signed the bill into law without ceremony or statement. In his defense (a weak one at that) there wasn’t much he could do with a bill that passed both chambers by unanimous consent. During the two years the bill lingered the only political hero I see is former Attorney General Eric Holder who voiced a strong enough objection to freeze the legislation mid-stream. While his successor Loretta Lynch didn’t endorse it she did change the atmosphere sufficiently to remove Holder’s “roadblock”.
Other House co-sponsors included Republican Representatives Gus Bilirakis of Florida, Doug Collins of Georgia, and Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania along with Democrats Peter Welch of Vermont and Judy Chu of California. In the Senate Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, David Vitter and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana were joined by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
The revolving door is a close cousin of money in Washington politics and it was at play in this legislation. The bill was written by former DEA official Linden Barber when he left the DEA for a job with the law firm Quarles & Brady. In July Barber received a further reward for his efforts when Cardinal Health named him their Chief Regulatory Attorney.
If anyone thinks the situation is any better under Trump they haven’t been paying attention. Despite the fact that the opioid crisis got its first significant national attention during the 2016 presidential campaign Trump has done nothing of substance to address it. In August he said, “It’s a national emergency.” Then he named a commission putting (the oft disrespected by Trump) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in change. The Commission was charged with having a final report to Trump by October 1, 2017. Christie asked for and received a one month extension. Of interesting note another Trump flunky, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, is on the Commission. You may remember Bondi as the recipient of a 2013 illegal campaign donation from Trump – in actuality Trump used funds from the Donald J. Trump Foundation – but that’s another scandal.
In another update Marsha Blackburn is running for and at this point is favored to win the Tennessee Senate seat being vacated by Bob Corker.
As for Tom Marino he is currently Trump’s nominee for Drug Czar. I guess this in the Trump tradition of only the best like Tom Pruitt at the EPA. The rest of us call it putting the foxes in charge of security at the henhouses. Early Monday afternoon as I commenced this article it was announced that Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has called for Trump to withdraw Marino’s nomination. West Virginia like Tennessee and Pennsylvania has been hit hard by the opioid crisis; unlike Mariano and Blackburn, Manchin actually cares about the health and welfare of his constituents.
I covered a lot but also left a lot out of today’s article. If you care about this particular set of incidents I suggest you read the Washington Post’s article and watch CBS’s coverage. If you care about America I suggest you stay informed, get politically active and most of all vote.
Please Note: Subsequent to writing but prior to publishing Tom Marino withdrew his name from consideration as Drug Czar. Justice Brandeis was correct.
Special Thanks: To the Washington Post and CBS for bringing this matter to light. This article is based largely on their reporting and would not have been possible without it.
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