When does a modern democracy function as a plutocracy? A recent Washington Post/60 Minutes investigation (video) offers one disturbing case study from the present day. It alleges that the pharmaceutical industry successfully prevented the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from targeting key elements in the opioid distribution ecosystem – even as deaths from those legal yet abused drugs skyrocketed.*
In April 2016, at the height of the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history, Congress effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation’s streets.
This has enormous implications for the future of American politics, medicine, and lives.
TL;DR version: drug companies successfully lobbied Congress to protect their ability to distribute opioids. Law enforcement accepted this; then-president Obama signed the pharma-friendly bill into law.
The mechanisms are very familiar and unsurprising. The key instrument is well-funded lobbying:
Political action committees representing the industry contributed at least $1.5 million to the 23 lawmakers who sponsored or co-sponsored four versions of the bill, including nearly $100,000 to [law sponsor] Marino and $177,000 to[law sponsor] Hatch. Overall, the drug industry spent $102 million lobbying Congress on the bill and other legislation between 2014 and 2016, according to lobbying reports.
Another key mechanism is the revolving door between regulators and the regulated (familiar to anyone observing the finance world). For one example,
Deeply involved in the effort to help the industry was the DEA’s former associate chief counsel, D. Linden Barber. While at the DEA, he helped design and carry out the early stages of the agency’s tough enforcement campaign, which targeted drug companies that were failing to report suspicious orders of narcotics.
When Barber went to work for the drug industry in 2011, he brought an intimate knowledge of the DEA’s strategy and how it could be attacked to protect the companies. He was one of dozens of DEA officials recruited by the drug industry during the past decade.
Two former U.S. deputy attorneys general have defended Cardinal, one of the “Big Three” companies, along with McKesson and AmerisourceBergen, that together control 85 percent of drug distribution in the United States.
But one of the most impressive findings in this Washington Post/60 Minutes report is the role of silence. Not only did the law pass through Congress without dissenting discussion or votes, but the reporters kept finding key actors refusing to speak, or worse. Silence flows from a staggering number of players, from former president Obama on down.
Let me simply copy and past excerpts under the header of “did not respond”:
Top officials at the White House and the Justice Department have declined to discuss how the bill came to pass.
The DEA’s top official at the time, acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg, declined repeated requests for interviews…
Loretta E. Lynch, who was attorney general at the time, declined a recent interview request.
[former president who signed the law] Obama also declined to discuss the law…
Marino declined repeated requests for comment. Marino’s staff called the U.S. Capitol Police when The Post and “60 Minutes” tried to interview the congressman at his office on Sept. 12…
The [DEA] declined to make [DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Mulrooney II] available for an interview.
The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and “60 Minutes” under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter. Some of those requests have been pending for nearly 18 months. The Post is now suing the Justice Department in federal court for some of those records…
[T]he DEA’s former associate chief counsel, D. Linden Barber… declined repeated requests for an interview…
Craig S. Morford, Cardinal’s chief legal and compliance officer… did not respond to requests for comment…
The DEA declined to make [Clifford Lee Reeves II, a career Justice attorney] available for an interview….
Jason Hadges, the senior DEA attorney overseeing pharmaceutical enforcement cases… left the DEA in May to join the pharmaceutical and biotechnology regulatory division of Hogan Lovells, a high-powered D.C. law firm. He declined to comment, citing “client sensitivities.”
Mike Gill, who had served as the chief of staff to DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg, left the agency to join one of the nation’s largest health-care law firms. He declined to discuss why the DEA dropped its opposition to the bill or his new job.
Last December, seven months after the bill became law, Marino’s chief of staff took a job as a lobbyist with the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Bill Tighe had served as Marino’s point man on the legislation. The association was a key backer of the bill. Tighe declined to comment.
Marsha Blackburn, who co-sponsored the House version of the bill, received $120,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. She did not respond to requests for an interview.
In addition to Blackburn, Marino and Hatch, The Post sought comment from the other nine co-sponsors of the 2016 bill. Only four responded.
So extensively maintained silence, revolving door careers, and well resourced lobbying: this is how a representative democracy becomes a plutocracy.
How will this develop over the next decade? One hint: “The chief advocate of the law that hobbled the DEA was Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who is now President Trump’s nominee to become the nation’s next drug czar.” Although he did just withdraw, doubtlessly because of this story. Will we see a battle between the investigative wing of the press and deepening plutocracy, or will the latter simply get better at its job?
*Two caveats: yes, the DEA has also done terrible things in the War on Drugs. And I recognize that 60 Minutes can offer an exceptional counternarrative to my critique of tv “news”.