Congress is homing in on the issue of opioid abuse, which is no accident in a presidential year when the issue is especially acute in the first-in-the-nation contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In fact, it’s one of the only possible pieces of legislation that both parties may be able to agree on in what’s universally expected to be an unproductive Congress. Ironically, the rosier outlook for opioid abuse legislation is being driven by Republican and Democratic presidential contenders — who are sharing their personal stories about relatives with drug problems with concerned voters on the campaign trail.
On the campaign trail, both Republicans and Democrats are addressing the epidemic by recounting their personal experience with relatives and others who have suffered from drug addiction.
With the Granite State presidential primary on Feb. 9, that state’s senators — Kelly Ayotte (R), who is up for reelection, and Jeanne Shaheen (D) — are among those leading the effort for more prevention, treatment and education about opioid abuse and to provide law enforcement officials the drugs that can keep an overdose from turning deadly.
Leaders in both parties and both chambers have endorsed the effort – a rare spot of bipartisan agreement for parties bitterly divided on most other topics. Committees have only just started holding hearings on the matter, but the acute bipartisan interest suggests that lawmakers may work to pass a bill before the chambers disband this summer.
The worsening heroin epidemic is demanding the attention of presidential candidates as they face heated contests in the early primary states, which are reeling from the deepening crisis. Over the last decade, Iowa has experienced over a threefold increase in people seeking treatment for heroin and opioid addictions, and a nearly tenfold increase in deaths from heroin overdoses. In New Hampshire, over 400 people died of heroin and opioid overdoses in 2015 – double what it was just two years ago.
Back in Washington, the issue has leapt to the front-burner.
The rapidly expanding discussion, just in the scope of one Judiciary Committee hearing this week, illustrated the danger of an opioid addiction bill running into familiar partisan traps — the same problem for other bills on the short list for 2016 action. In the last week, congressional enthusiasm for passing criminal justice reform – another area in which there is common ground between the parties – began to wane as discord over questions of criminal intent deepened.
But on opioid abuse, even the lawmakers most interested in attaching their pet projects to the bill seem aware of the need to keep their desires in check, for the good of getting something done.
“We’ve seen that when we try to do big comprehensive bills sometimes they get weighed down and nothing happens,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters Wednesday, reflecting on the feasibility of his own wish list for opioid reform. “So I think we’re going to have to make a prudential decision about how much weight and additional topics that this kind of legislation can bear.”
The bipartisan bill at the center of the emerging opioid abuse debate was drafted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, it would set up a grant program to provide state and local governments with resources for education and treatment for opioid abuse, reduce unnecessary prescriptions – and work with criminal justice and mental health officials to lower rates of substance abuse and deaths from overdosing, as well as ensure sufficient treatment.
The bill would also incentivize states to approve the use of naloxone, which can counteract overdoses, providing liability protections to those who distribute it.
“Solving this crisis requires a holistic approach,” Ayotte said, speaking in support of the legislation before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. “This is the most urgent public health and safety crisis facing my home state…I have never seen anything like this.”
But the measure is not the only opioid bill on offer.
At the same hearing, Shaheen stumped for a $600 million emergency supplemental bill to invest more money in the heroin epidemic. Anticipating the potential for pushback, she argued the figure was far less than the $5.4 billion Congress approved in 2014 to combat Ebola, even though far fewer Americans died of Ebola than heroin addiction. Ever since New Hampshire’s chief medical examiner called the heroin epidemic “the Ebola of northern New England” last year, politicians have been paying close attention to the problem and the comparison.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he’d like an effort to address the supply of heroin coming across the border from Mexico with more enforcement action – a potentially controversial move, as border security initiatives tend to spark heated debate over immigration. “Mexican cartels are expanding into new territory because the administration hasn’t secured the border,” Grassley complained.
And Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) wouldn’t mind tying a piece of mental health legislation to the opioid abuse bill – though most Democrats oppose it.
“I don’t know if you can draw any artificial lines between dealing with mental health issues in the criminal justice system and drug addiction issues,” he argued. He hoped, he added, that “we won’t draw any artificial lines and create and stovepipes, and we try to find a way to deal with this in a broader, more deliberative way.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the drug naloxone.