Members of Congress for sale, prices may vary

Bob McKee

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress. — Mark Twain


If there ever was any doubt that some members of the U.S. Congress are bought and paid for a recent segment of 60 Minutes that revealed a sneaky attempt to cripple the Drug Enforcement Administration enforcement powers dispelled it. 

Now I fully realize that some of you reading this will automatically disregard any report attributed to CBS news. But 60 Minutes has a long, near sterling reputation for fairness, accuracy and objectivity. That isn’t to say the program has not made some glaring mistakes in the past but every news organization must plead guilty to that charge at some time or another.

Be that as it may, that 60 Minutes report on the opioid epidemic and a bill that practically eliminated DEA’s ability to enforce restrictions on the big pharmaceutical companies in manufacturing and distribution of those pain killers is clearly backed by facts and interviews. It was a big payoff by Big Pharma to continue making big bucks, plain and simple.

Lobbyists spent nearly $249 million for pharmaceutical and health product companies in 2016, almost $100 million more than any other category of spending for special interests. Of course, that caught the attention of many members of Congress.

Joseph Rannazziisi, former head of DEA, said he was pushed out of the agency in 2015 for aggressively going after the companies responsible for flooding pharmacies all across the country with opioid medications. Drug distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen control more than 80 percent of the distribution market in the U.S. and were repeat targets of the DEA enforcement of opioid regulations.

Rannazzisi was working to form a legal strategy that would hold companies accountable when they knowingly sent opioids to doctors and pharmacies that sold the drugs illegally, a force of white-collar drug dealers who, more than anything else, sparked the crisis. To defang DEA and neutralize him, the industry hired dozens of DEA and Justice Department lawyers to work against their old bosses and used its allies to go after him.

“Of course, this all comes down to money, and it goes beyond parties and administrations,” Linette Lopez wrote in a recent piece for Business Insider. “What started under President Barack Obama is continuing in the age of President Donald Trump.”

As an example, she pointed out, the man Trump nominated to become his drug czar, Republican Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, is the same man who helped write the legislation that disempowered the DEA, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016. Like much legislation that comes out of Washington, D.C., the title makes it sound as if it’s for the good of all when in reality it benefits Big Pharma more than individuals.

President Obama signed this ill-conceived piece of legislation into law before he left office. Some of his former staff members said last week that he didn’t know what all was in the bill before he signed it. Regardless, Obama’s administration deserves a great deal of blame because people who worked in his DEA and DOJ made it happen when they turned to the private sector.

In response to the 60 Minutes report, the DEA released a statement saying “During the past seven years, we have removed approximately 900 registrations annually, preventing reckless doctors and rogue business from making an already troubling problem worse. Increasingly, our investigators initiated more than 10,000 cases and averaged more than 2,000 arrests per year.”

The problem “isn’t going to be solved by going after rogue doctors and pharmacies,” Lopez wrote. “That’s like going after dealers instead of the heads of cartels. That’s not how you fight a drug war and isn’t that what this is supposed to be?”

Currently on the legislative front, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, is launching an investigation into the business practices of drug makers and distributors. She also is calling for repeal of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.

Senators and representatives earn $174,000 a year. The Senate majority and minority leaders make another $20,000, as do the majority and minority leaders in the House. The speaker of the House is paid $223,500. None of those salaries go very far living in an expensive town like Washington, D.C. Members of Congress receive other benefits, of course, and pay the lowest health insurance premiums around. They also receive allowances for a staff both in D.C. and in their home states and districts.

It makes you wonder how so many of them become millionaires after only a few years in office.

A patriot stands ready to defend his country against his government. — Edward Abbey