Is anyone in government paying attention?
We Americans may have a problem far worse than the drug abuse epidemic.
What if one of our vaunted checks and balances on governmental abuses took itself out of the game? What if another one — and there are only three — went AWOL on occasion?
You may have heard about the flap involving U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., who had been slated by President Donald Trump to become head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Marino withdrew from contention after a firestorm caused by a report by The Washington Post and CBS News.
It seems that in 2016, Marino sponsored a bill that critics insist handcuffs federal officials trying to prevent drug companies from shipping enormous quantities of opioid pain pills that may be used by drug abusers. More on whether that’s true in a moment.
But let’s assume it is, for now. How could such a monstrosity become law?
Simple: Both houses of Congress approved it with no objections. Then-President Barack Obama signed it into law.
Now, lawmakers are falling over one another trying to rescind the Marino bill, which, incidentally, had four co-sponsors (three Republicans and one Democrat). Why, insist the senators and representatives, they just didn’t know. They were assured the bill was a good one.
Individual members of Congress cannot be expected to read, much less understand, every bill put before them. That’s why they have thousands of staff members — not one of whom, it appears, waved a red flag.
What about the DEA? Apparently, none of the agency’s leaders was concerned enough about the bill to urge members of Congress to reject it (one lower-level DEA employee did object, according to the Post).
Finally, Obama famously declared he would get things done with his pen and phone. Why didn’t he use the writing instrument to veto the bill?
Here’s the bottom line: Congress is at the top of the legislative branch of government, one of the three checks and balances. Yet not a single lawmaker objected to the bill.
Obama led the executive branch, the second check and balance. Yet, apparently because no one under him said it was a bad idea, he signed the bill.
As far as relying on the third check and balance, the courts, forget that. They can’t scrap a law unless it’s unconstitutional, even if it smells to the high heavens. This one is constitutional.
Let’s get back to whether Marino’s bill was as bad as the critics say. In comparison to much of what stacks up in Capitol Hill paper trays, his measure is very short — just three pages.
Previously, the government had sweeping power to cut off shipments of controlled substances with legitimate medical purposes. The attorney general can do so based on concern of an “imminent danger” to a community. Marino’s bill changes that to “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat.” According to The Associated Press, federal officials say that is “a much higher bar … difficult to meet.”
We’ll leave that for the lawyers to argue, but a commonsense reading would seem to indicate the Marino change still leaves the government with a lot of power.
It is nothing new for Congress to abrogate its own authority. Look at environmental law; nearly 50 years ago, lawmakers granted the Environmental Protection Agency such sweeping power that, in recent years, EPA officials decided they were allowed to shut down an entire industry (coal), because they didn’t like it.
But this is different. This is a specific bill on the most critical domestic crisis in decades, drug abuse. And no one, in either the executive or legislative branches, was minding the store on it.
Even the check and balance within a check and balance — the existence of two political parties constantly at each other’s throats in Congress — failed miserably.
Remember when Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, asked about the Affordable Care Act, said we’d just have to pass it to know what was in it? Wonder what else Congress and the White House have approved without knowing what was in it?
Myer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.