An internal federal government watchdog told Congress on Thursday that it found the White House’s first drug control strategy out of compliance with legal requirements.
The Government Accountability Office’s acting Director for Strategic Issues Triana McNeil told a panel of lawmakers the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s 2019 drug control strategy did not meet requirements set out in 2006 statute and the Trump-backed SUPPORT Act, which was enacted last fall.
“Based on our preliminary analysis the strategy does not include many of these requirements. For example, it lacks annual measurable objectives and specific targets. It lists seven broad measures of performance but does not indicate how they would be measured or how they relate to long term or short term goals. Some of the seven measures don’t even have timelines,” McNeil said during her opening statement to the House Oversight Committee, during the hearing evaluating the Trump administration’s response to the opioid crisis.
“The strategy is also completely void of any performance measurements system. How can ONDCP track its own progress? How can ONDCP be held accountable without this critical system in place?” she added.
McNeil also suggested that GAO was having difficulty meeting with ONDCP staff and obtaining requested documents since the agency began evaluating the strategy.
The administration released the 23-page document at the end of January, the first time the White House has released any sort of drug control strategy since Trump took office in 2017.
The strategy provides a range of big-picture efforts but few details in terms of execution and measures of success. Efforts discussed in the strategy include implementing a nationwide public education campaign, addressing safe prescribing practices, expanding the use of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone and better utilizing drug courts.
Critics of the strategy have scrutinized the lack of comprehensive analysis, measurable objectives and data. And while the Obama administration’s drug strategies regularly reached more than 100 pages, the Trump administration’s inaugural strategy is 23 pages long.
Sitting beside McNeil was the Trump White House’s drug czar, Jim Carroll. He said in opening remarks during the hearing that the drug strategy he was tasked with creating was purposefully different from those submitted during the Obama administration.
“To address this crisis I have retooled our approach, retooled our strategy and our office to deal with this new environment,” Carroll said. “This strategy is much different from previous strategies and fundamentally improves on the priors. The strategy is a forward-looking document and has a clearly defined vision and broad metrics to assess the performance of the federal government.”
Speaking about the 2016 drug control strategy, Carroll said: “It was not a strategy. It was a report card on drug use in America and it was a failing one at that.”
However, Carroll’s initial explanation did not satisfy some Democrats and Republicans.
Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said the White House office charged with overseeing the country’s drug policy has been “missing in action for months.”
“There is both a leadership vacuum and a competence vacuum at the head of ONDCP,” he said.
“Obviously there is a disconnect between your strategy and what GAO, Ms. McNeil, is suggesting is in it,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina.
“And I think part of the conundrum that we’re in is that members of Congress, in a bipartisan way, rely very heavily on GAO. And so as politely as I can mention, you need to make Ms. McNeil happy,” he added.
Carroll told Meadows that his office would be finalizing a data supplement and further information to be released later this spring.
Meadows said when he first heard McNeil’s report, “it was like nails on a chalkboard.”
“And yet as you continue to share what you’re doing it gives me greater comfort,” he added.
During concluding remarks, Cummings asked Carroll if he believed the 2019 strategy complied with the law.
“It absolutely complies with the law,” Carroll replied.
However, when Cummings subsequently asked McNeil if the strategy was compliant with the law, she said no.
Carroll also told committee members that his office would fully comply with GAO’s requests for interviews and documents.
Carroll additionally rebuffed criticism over the lack of funds devoted to the 2017 emergency declaration on the opioid crisis versus the potential funds that will be granted and reallocated as part of the recently declared border security national emergency.
“i think they were done with two different intents. When the opioid crisis was identified it was to bring awareness,” Carroll said.
Toward the conclusion of the hearing, he added: “There wasn’t really that much money associated with the declaration of (the opioid crisis national emergency), but really, the greatest benefit was making sure Americans understood what we’re facing.”
Lawmakers questioned Carroll about the recommendations made by the opioid commission chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, which was established in March 2017 by executive order. The commission submitted a final report in October 2017 with 56 recommendations on how to reduce overdose deaths. “How many of those have been adopted?” asked Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California.
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Not all of the recommendations were under the purview of the federal government, Carroll responded. When asked how many were, he said he would have to conduct further research with his staff.
Unhappy with the lack of details from the country’s top drug control policy maker, the committee asked that Carroll return for a follow-up in 60 days.