Lawmakers urged the Drug Enforcement Administration to seek more legal authority if it is needed to battle the nation's opioid epidemic, telling an official they are awaiting suggestions on how they can help stem the worst drug crisis in U.S. history.
"Give us suggestions. Talk to us. We want to do the right thing," Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (R-Fla.) implored at a hearing held Wednesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "We need to know the tools that you need to handle this. We're on the same team with regard to this."
The offers to Neil Doherty, deputy assistant administrator of the DEA's Office of Diversion Control, which battles abuse of prescription opioids, came in the wake of a joint report by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" that Congress had stripped the DEA of its most potent enforcement weapon against giant companies whose drugs are sometimes illegally diverted onto the street.
The 2016 law, approved by unanimous consent in both houses of Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, was pushed through by a handful of lawmakers allied with the drug distribution companies.
In the House, where a drug industry attorney helped craft an early version of the bill, the leader of that effort was Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), who fought the DEA for nearly two years to win passage of the measure. Marino was President Trump's nominee to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy but withdrew two days after the reports.
In the Senate, the law's primary sponsor was Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who negotiated a final version with DEA and Justice Department officials.
Hatch and Marino have blasted the news reports, pointing out that Justice and the DEA agreed to the final version of the law and made no attempts to halt its passage or enlist a member of the Senate to stop it. DEA officials have said they accepted a compromise on a law they did not want after negotiating the best deal they believed they could get. Emails included in the Oct. 15 reports support that contention.
On Wednesday, Doherty repeatedly told the committee that the DEA would be happy to work with Congress and the Justice Department to develop recommendations for the authority it needs. He provided no specifics.
Asked by Bilirakis whether the new law had hampered enforcement, he said it "changes the way we look" at the issuance of immediate suspension orders, "but we use an array of other tools."
Lawmakers referred at times to the joint investigation during Wednesday's hearing, called to review the federal effort against the opioid epidemic that is claiming 91 lives a day in the nation.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a co-sponsor of the Marino bill, noted that the DEA's use of its authority to freeze drug shipments from company warehouses began to decline sharply after 2011, years before the new law was enacted.
"Unless the effect of the law occurred before the passage of the law," it isn't reasonable to blame Congress's action, he suggested.
But the reports by The Post and "60 Minutes" said the slowdown began for another reason about 2013, when attorneys at DEA headquarters began to delay the enforcement efforts of agents in the field. Some DEA attorneys worried that courts might not support their legal arguments, though they had never lost that kind of case.
The new law, enacted in 2016, effectively stripped the DEA of the authority to issue immediate suspension orders.
"The question is: Why did the agency stop using that tool or dramatically reduce the use of that tool?" Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) asked Doherty.
A few lawmakers also threatened during the hearing to subpoena information from the DEA, accusing the agency of delaying responses for six months to their questions about wholesale drug distributors that poured millions of pain pills into West Virginia.