The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why this investigation into Congress’s ties to the drug industry has Washington’s attention

(Toby Talbot/AP)

This story has been updated with the latest developments of the fallout from this investigation. 

Two popular villains in politics are the subject of a new Washington Post investigation: Congress and the pharmaceutical industry. And the investigation has grabbed Washington's attention.

The deeply reported story by Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein, in partnership with “60 Minutes,” latches Congress and drug companies so closely together on a piece of opioid legislation that it raises some big questions, including: How much industry involvement in crafting legislation is too much? And is Congress doing enough to address the nation's prescription drug epidemic, or, have lawmakers, at the behest of drug companies making billions off addictive pain killers, potentially made it worse?

Higham and Bernstein report that in April 2016, at the height of the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history, Congress stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon to keep prescription narcotics from going straight from major drug companies to the nation's streets.

On Monday, moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (W. Va.) called on President Trump to withdraw the nomination of Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) to be his drug czar. Manchin said he was “horrified” by the ties between the drug industry and Marino that were outlined in the investigation.  And Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Monday she'd be introducing legislation to repeal the law.

Also Monday, Trump characterized drug companies as “getting away with murder.” Though he was talking specifically about prescription drug prices, Trump's eyebrow-raising comments suggests he'd be open to rolling back the industry's power in Washington. Democrats like Manchin say the first step is to withdraw his nomination of the lawmaker at the center of the investigation.

President Trump said “Drug companies frankly are getting away with murder,” while talking about prescription drug prices being “out of control." (Video: The Washington Post)

The law Marino authored took away the DEA's ability to freeze suspicious shipments from drug companies, shipments the agency was concerned were on their way to the wrong hands. This law was supported by some of the nation's major drug distributors, opposed by the DEA and, according to this investigation, was pushed through Congress and the federal government after its opponents were neutralized or had joined the other side.

“The drug industry, the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores have an influence over Congress that has never been before,” former DEA investigative agent Joseph T. Rannazzisi says in the story. He was forced out of the agency in 2015.

In connecting the dots between Congress, the drug industry and this new legislation, the reporting in this story also illustrates what people despise about Washington. Here are a few examples:

A revolving door between the drug industry and those who regulate and legislate it: This stat from the investigation is eyebrow-raising: Since the DEA started to crack down on the opioid industry a decade ago, drug companies and their law firms have hired dozens of DEA officials, most of them from the division that regulates the drug industry.

“Some of the best and brightest former DEA attorneys are now on the other side and know all of the weak points,” said Jonathan P. Novak, a DEA lawyer. “Their fingerprints are on memos and policy and emails.”

A clear money trail between the drug industry and the lawmakers who go to the mat for them: The investigation finds that the drug industry contributed at least $1.5 million to two dozen lawmakers who supported versions of this legislation, including more than $100,000 each to three key players, Marino, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah.)

Marino and the bill's supporters argue that this law cracks down on an overly aggressive DEA and protects drug companies from any unfair or misguided use of federal power.

Alleged abuse of power: There's a lot of it in this story. In the heat of a related battle over the DEA's case against a major drug company, Rannazzisi, the aggressive DEA investigator, says he believes the then-deputy attorney general told him to back off (an accusation the official denies).

Later, Rannazzisi's opponents in Congress asked for, and received, a government watchdog investigation into Rannazzisi's rhetoric about them, accusing him of trying to “intimidate” Congress. Rannazzisi denies their accusations and says the investigation is why he retired after 30 years.

Congress glossing over controversial legislation: As you can tell by now, this legislation stirred up strong feelings among drug-policy officials, in part because it directly affects a crisis that left a death toll three times greater than the total U.S. military deaths in the Vietnam War.

But the broader Congress never got to debate this law. The final version of the bill eventually passed both chambers using a procedural tool that requires no debate on the floor. As a result, the bill technically passed without any opposition.

Scandal: In the middle of all this, one of the DEA's heads resigned after news reports that some of her agents attended sex parties in Colombia funded by cocaine cartels. This isn't directly related to the story, but it adds to the appearance of problems at the agency.

Antagonizing the media: As The Post and the “60 Minutes” team were trying to report this, they went to Capitol Hill to try to talk to Marino, the bill's author. Marino's staff called Capitol Police as the reporters tried to interview him at his office. This is remarkable, given that reporters routinely swarm lawmakers in Congress.

The Post is suing the Justice Department in federal court for access to records that it says could shed additional light on this entire saga. Some of those requests have been pending for nearly 18 months.

The entire piece is worth a read.