Holding the Government Accountable

Opioid Investigation Shows the Swamp in Action

(Illustration by POGO; Photos: Shutterstock, Pixabay)

Last week, The Washington Post and 60 Minutes unveiled a multi-part major investigation into how the federal government’s efforts to fight the widespread deadly epidemic of opioid addiction were stymied by the campaign finance system and the revolving door. It took painstaking, labor-intensive investigative journalism and former government insiders willing to step forward to connect the dots. The issues raised by the investigation highlight several areas where the Project On Government Oversight has done work for many years.

The investigation has had some short-term impact: Representative Tom Marino (R-PA), President Trump’s nominee to chair a federal opioid crisis commission, withdrew when the spotlight shined on him as the main backer of the House legislation defanging the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to combat illegal distribution of opioids. Some co-sponsors of the bill have taken political heat and have even called for revising the law in light of its “unintended consequences.”

But there has been pushback, with one prominent politician saying that the Post/60 Minutes’ findings are overblown. And the revolving door keeps spinning: Legistorm reported that a top policy aide to Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), a co-chair of the Senate’s Prescription Drug Abuse Caucus, is moving into a lobbying job for McKesson Corp., the nation’s number one distributor of prescription drugs, to lobby on opioid abuse.

While Marino has drawn the most scrutiny, it’s worth mentioning that his legislation passed unanimously in Congress with support from members of both political parties. As with many things in DC, insiders in the weeds of policy too often are the only ones who know the full impact of arcane changes—and these insiders tend to be lobbyists for powerful corporate interests. Over the last few decades, Representatives and Senators have scaled back their policy staff, making them increasingly dependent on lobbyists and experts in the executive branch who write laws for them and give them talking points to use.

However, at the end of the day, public officials signed up to do a job: to represent the American people, not just the few who can afford to hire well-heeled lobbyists and make thousands of dollars in political contributions every campaign cycle. The Post/60 Minutes investigation shows that our political system is in dire need of reform. The consequences of the status quo are literally lost American lives. Let’s hope this investigation isn’t easily forgotten in the months and years ahead, and that it sparks some real, lasting change. We need it.