WASHINGTON – Americans are dying at the rate of 175 a day from opioid overdoses, but President Donald Trump has yet to deliver his promised strategy to end the crisis.
And so the people’s representatives, in the absence of presidential leadership, did about the only thing they could do. They had a day of opioid karaoke.
There wasn’t actual music. But it was open-mic day Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The panel invited members of Congress to take the witness seat and, in three minutes or less, sing a sad song about how the opioid crisis is ruining the lives of their constituents.
“In Oregon alone more people died last year from drug overdoses than from car accidents,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R).
“The opioid epidemic is having devastating consequences in my home state” of New Jersey, said Rep. Frank Pallone (D).
“There are enough bottles of painkillers in circulation for nearly every Hoosier to have their own,” said Rep. Susan Brooks (R) of Indiana.
“Five-hundred and one New Mexicans died of drug overdose deaths,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D).
“Drug overdoses cause nearly four times as many deaths compared to traffic accidents” in Ohio, said Rep. Bob Latta (R).
“I can give you some statistics from Vermont,” offered Rep. Peter Welch (D). And he did.
On and on it went, in bipartisan harmony. After 90 minutes of these elegies, I checked with staff to see how many performers remained; we weren’t even half way through the set.
Every one of them had an idea, many of the ideas were good, and a few might even become law. But it’s all of little use as long as the Trump administration is doing nothing. The president seems to be singing a different tune: “When You Say Nothing at All.” This is what it’s like when there’s no functioning president.
Trump promised endlessly during his presidential campaign to solve the opioid crisis, and by his own estimate he won the New Hampshire primary (and, from there, the Republican nomination) “because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den.” Now it turns out that, as with most everything else he promised, he had no plan.
He dumped the task on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is ill-equipped to handle it. He named an opioid commission and then ignored or dithered on its most important recommendations. Just this week, the commission chairman, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), scolded Trump for failing to officially declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.
Worse, Trump is doing his best to roll back what little is being done to fight the epidemic, proposing or backing cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Medicaid program and eliminating the help provided to addicts under Obamacare.
That Trump has no plan is unsurprising. He had no plan to replace Obamacare, no infrastructure plan, no tax plan, no foreign policy. But inaction on opioids is particularly ruinous, as the overdoses kill more people than car accidents and more than AIDS killed at its peak. In lieu of a plan, Trump has threatened to arrest more people, suggested kids say no to drugs, and sent the first lady to West Virginia on Tuesday to tour an opioid addiction center for infants.
No wonder lawmakers are singing the blues. “Calamity,” “Epidemic” and “Emergency” were their tunes Wednesday. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), making a rare appearance before a committee, spoke of the “savage daily toll on the American people.”
There is much they could do if they had a cooperative administration: restrictions on prescription quantities, training for prescribers, better treatments for addiction, alternative painkillers, reduced waiting times for treatment. Instead, with GOP threats to Medicaid and the like, things are headed in the other direction.
With this grim outlook, the members of Congress from both parties chose to reprise some of their greatest hits from the past – congratulating themselves on legislation such as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 21st Century Cures Act, enacted during the Obama administration. This was good policy but insufficient: All of $1 billion has been granted to the states under the Cures Act – or 0.0003 percent of annual federal spending.
The money the lawmakers boasted of – $6 million for this state, $125,000 for that program – sounded like off-notes after the desperate (and true) dirges they sang for their constituents. The opioid epidemic is a tragedy. This response is a farce.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.