Pilz Opioid crisis Original art by Lizzy Oakley

How Post-Capitol Riot Politics Derailed a Bi-Partisan Opioid Bill

WASHINGTON – The fallout after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 continues to be felt on Capitol Hill. In recent days, it not only contributed to the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney from House GOP leadership and has lawmakers privately increasing their personal security, but it also almost derailed a broadly bipartisan opioid bill. The legislation was salvaged after initially being defeated after a congresswoman felt compelled to put her oath to the Constitution over her son’s personal struggle with opioid addiction, but the episode reveals how personal, even petty, politics have become in contemporary Washington.

Earlier this year Rep. Madeleine Dean released a gripping book, “Under Our Roof: A Son’s Battle for Recovery, a Mother’s Battle for Her Son,” with her 30-year-old son, Harry Cunnane, about his debilitating opioid addiction. The Democrat from the suburbs of Philadelphia sent the book to dozens and dozens of congressional offices. Lawmakers of all stripes were touched, coming up to Dean on the House floor, the halls of the Capitol or even the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor with their own personal stories from the raging opioid crisis.

You know, in a way – sort of this distorted way – it felt safer, felt cleaner than cocaine, because it was a pill. You felt like you knew what you’re getting.

Harry Cunnane, on the allure of opioids

“’Let me tell you about my sister. Let me tell you about my nephew,’ ‘let me tell you about my son: four years in recovery’ or ‘my brother who died of an overdose,’” Dean tells The News Station. “When you start opening up, so many people find themselves – pieces of themselves – in your story.”

While Harry was in recovery, Dean and her family had to deal with what millions of Americans go through: Tackling addiction alone, in what feels to so many like culturally-mandated silence.

“That shameful shame that is imposed upon families – that’s one of the reasons we wrote the book,” Dean says.

A Different Kind of Shame

But this month her effort to change the conversation around addiction on Capitol Hill – which she and her son, who now works for the recovery center that helped save him, also hoped would spill out into local communities nationwide – met the cold, bitter reality of post-Capitol riot politics.

About 10 days ahead of a vote on the Orphan Drug Exclusivity Act – intended to get more low-cost opioid treatment drugs on the marketplace and which passed the House unanimously last year – Dean’s cell rang, and it was Georgia Republican Earl “Buddy” Carter, who for a time was the only pharmacist in Congress.

“It was such a pleasant, short call,” Dean recounts, “I ended it by saying, Buddy, you do know that I had already introduced the bill — you do understand that, right?”

At the time the measure was set for a vote the week of May 11 and had already been filed, thus to get an original lead co-sponsor on the bill would require her to pull it and then reintroduce it, which would likely have delayed the vote.

Staffers for the two lawmakers started an email thread discussing the details, which quickly devolved into the petty politics which are the hallmark of this Congress.

Even though the sophomore congresswoman cares passionately about stemming the opioid epidemic that almost claimed her son’s life, she’s also a lawyer who was tapped as a House manager for the second Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. After Trump was acquitted,  Dean met with her staff and devised a rule: Generally, her office won’t allow any of the 138 House Republicans who refused to certify now-President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory.

“I still want any Republican who voted in what I think was an incredibly wrong way to co-sponsor legislation that they care about,” Dean says, “but I will not let them be a co-leader, because I saw just such a grave failure of leadership in that vote.”

With her son’s struggle with opioids always on her mind, it wasn’t an easy decision, because it risked tanking legislation she cares deeply about.

“That was one of the conversations I had with my team: ‘If I do this, am I destroying the possibility of this bill passing?’ And we really strategized and thought we were not. I never thought we’d come into that ridiculous tussle at the last minute,” Dean remembers, “but we planned, and we thought we will be able to get enough other support — and Republican support — that I didn’t think I was going to absolutely be taking this bill off the table.”

Once Rep. Carter and his staff learned her rule was being applied to him, she says he threw a tantrum and worked to prove her calculus wrong.

I felt like I was out on a playground in seventh grade. To me what it appeared to be was he got his feelings hurt, and so he convinced leadership to not support it.

Rep. Dean discussing Rep. Carter’s protest of her opioid bill

“Carter came up to me in the Speaker’s Lobby and was agitated, and I said, ‘No, I’m not going to have you co-lead,’” Dean recalls. “To be very honest, I said, ‘If you’ve reflected, if you’ve changed your mind about the electoral college vote, I’m open to changing my mind on this. But if you stand by that vote, if you still cannot say that Joe Biden was elected in a free and fair election, if you cannot stand by the rule of law, and more than 60 courts that confirmed it, I can’t ask you to co-lead with me because I don’t think that’s leadership.’”  

The exchange was petty, according to Dean.

“I felt like I was out on a playground in seventh grade,” Dean says. “To me what it appeared to be was he got his feelings hurt, and so he convinced leadership to not support it.”   

Turns out there was no chance Carter was ever going to back down.

“It will be a cold day in hell before I apologize to her for my vote on Jan. 6,” Carter recently told the Washington Post at the Capitol.  

Thus, one of three pharmacists in Congress convinced two other pharmacists and more than 140 Republicans, including GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, to vote against a broadly bipartisan bill intended to save lives. 

The bill’s initial failure seems to have occurred because of more than just fragile, teen-like egos on the jungle gym.

“I even said to Carter and McCarthy, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t think this is all about the Orphan Drug Bill. I think you guys have something else on your plate,’” Dean remembers. “I think it was a lot of high tension, a lot of hurt feelings…I think that was all balled up with what I think is the Republican Conference just convulsing, trying to figure out who they are.”

In one of those bipartisan scrums, Dean says tensions were high, and she let slip a four-letter word.

“I used one of those words,” Dean admits, “I was glad I was wearing a mask on the floor.” 

Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer ran over after the bill went down and promised to bring the measure up through regular order, and not as a suspension vote – where rules are relaxed on non-controversial bills that are expected to sail through with well beyond the ⅔ support needed to pass such a measure.

“Hoyer came right over and said, ‘You know, we will get this done, Mad,’” the congresswoman says. 

They did. The following week — last week — it sailed through by a vote of 402-23, after most Republicans relented. Unlike the other two pharmacists in the House and the vast majority of the GOP, Rep. Carter joined 22 members of his party in opposing the very bill he wanted his name attached to.

I’ll never apologize for standing up for my values and ensuring hardworking Georgians are heard in the floor of the House.

Rep. Early “Buddy” Carter

Carter and his staff refused to answer this question sent by The News Station: “Over all my question for him: Why did you vote against a bill you wanted to be lead co-sponsor of? Wondering if the bill text changed, etc.? Dean says you were pouting. Did you put personal feelings over the millions of Americans personally impacted by the raging opioid epidemic?”

“It’s unfortunate Mrs. Dean continues to mischaracterize the content and nature of our conversations,” Carter emailed The News Station through his chief of staff over the weekend. “It’s also unfortunate she’s blinded by her own partisanship and obsession with President Trump rather than recognizing we’ve been working together on this issue for years.”

While the pharmacist-turned-congressman evaded our main question, the statement they sent over made clear he’s proudly unapologetic.

“What’s most unfortunate is that this could have and should have been introduced in the same bipartisan fashion in which it has [in] the past,” Carter continued. “My colleagues on the other side of the aisle may continue putting partisan politics over policy and allowing their Trump Derangement Syndrome to block bipartisan agreement, but I’ll never apologize for standing up for my values and ensuring hardworking Georgians are heard in the floor of the House.”   

For her part, Dean is also unapologetic.

“Maybe this little test case with the Orphan Drug Act and my interaction with Representative Carter is just like a baby step toward getting at people saying the truth,” Dean says, “if we just take little steps like that, to say, ‘No, you know what? I’m not going to keep passing on disinformation. I’m not going to keep passing on the lie. Your constituents are owed more. My constituents are owed more.’”

2020 Politics Distracting From the Epidemic

The entire episode shows the perilous nature of 2021 politics, and how the 2020 election and its aftermath continue to be the central theme of this 117th Congress. That’s bad for average Americans, including Dean’s own son Harry and others like him suffering from substance use disorder.   

For the past two weeks, instead of the opioid epidemic — an epidemic that’s cost more lives annually than the Vietnam War — being highlighted and addressed in a non-partisan way, the deadly stain on the nation was engulfed by Trump-politics and drowned out by bitter, personal politics. 

Lawmakers themselves allowed business as usual to derail one of the pressing conversations they’ve shirked for too long. And Rep. Dean and Harry’s story is one folks would be wise to hear.

“It’s very hard to think about. We fought we were like two caged animals. I knew we had a serious problem under our roof. I used to say to my husband, ‘I feel like there’s a fire in the wall of our house and nobody can feel it but me,’” Dean tells The News Station. “I would lie awake at night saying, ‘What is wrong with Harry?’”

From a young age Harry marched to his own drummer. 

“I would try anything that I would get my hands on,” Harry recounts to The News Station of his later high school and college years.

While addiction has touched some of the congresswoman’s six older siblings, Harry’s two siblings — one older and one younger — weren’t touched by it. He says it’s hard to zero in on where exactly the beast of a burden he’s had to bear came from.

“The only thing I can really pinpoint, you know, is potentially just this feeling of discomfort, you know, that went way back,” Harry says. “This kind of sense of something’s not all the way right — feeling uncomfortable in situations that shouldn’t be.”

As a young teen, the first time Harry drank, he wasn’t into it. He didn’t like the taste, and it hurt his stomach. The second time was different, though.

“I pushed through far enough – I was drinking a 40 [oz. beer],” Harry recounts, “and I just remember once I got down past a certain point, it was like, ‘I get it. I understand why people do this now.’ Because the first time I drank, I didn’t drink enough to feel it.”  

That was a life changer. 

“I just remember the first time I felt that euphoria – it just wiped away all of those fears and discomforts that I had,” Harry says. “That’s what I was going for. It was the drinking to drink, it was that feeling of, sort of, just being at peace.”

The congresswoman comes from a large Irish-Catholic family and remembers Harry’s friends getting busted, even as he got away, by the cops for drinking his freshman year of high school.

“I was relatively calm thinking, ‘OK. Experimentation. Adolescence. Finding his way,’” Dean recounts. 

“But pretty quickly we found out – no,” the congresswoman stops herself, “I didn’t find out. I kept struggling to figure out what was going on.” 

Then suddenly it all changed.

The cover of their book.

Harry moved on to marijuana, which didn’t hurt his stomach. Then one night while blackout drunk, he remembers trying cocaine. While the night was a blur, when he woke up he knew he crossed a threshold he told himself was the forbidden territory of more high-powered, synthetic drugs. He used it and didn’t die. 

“The world didn’t collapse, and, all of a sudden, I realized that there wasn’t the odor. It was small, it was easy to hide, I could do it during the day at school, not just before or after,” Harry recalls. “It was accessible — it was expensive, but it was accessible.”

He kept using throughout high school, and then in college he was re-introduced to prescription drugs. The first Percocet 30 – a high-dose pharmaceutical pain pill – he ingested as an undergraduate student was life altering.  

“It immediately was like, ‘This is the cure,’” Harry says. “And, you know, in a way – sort of this distorted way – it felt safer, felt cleaner than cocaine, because it was a pill. You felt like you knew what you’re getting.”

Harry eventually dropped out of college and was “completely addicted to opioids” when his girlfriend got pregnant.

“I believed with every part of me that that was going to be it – that was going to be my motivation, my willpower, my reason that I’m going to turn my life around,” Harry recalls. “And I, you know, I tried all these different methods, and right up before her birth I was able to stop for a couple days, maybe a couple weeks, and within 24 hours of my daughter being born, I was using again to celebrate.”

So the more people talk about it, the less shameful it will seem to others.

Rep. Madeleine Dean

He sought treatment, and in the process his mother — the congresswoman — also learned something countless American families have also learned the hard way.

“In terms of shame — or having it hit me — was when we went to a family visitation in his early recovery, and the harsh language, the harsh words that ‘I am an addict’ or ‘my son is an addict,’” Dean remembers, “It’s hard to say, because it’s such a loaded word. It feels like it’s got built-in condemnation…”

“Yeah,” Harry spontaneously blurts out on our recent Zoom.

“…and it shouldn’t,” Dean says, finishing her sentence, “I’m sure I suffered from worry, shame – a worry that people would judge me for my son suffering from a disease.”

That’s why Dean is redoubling her efforts to try and get Congress to truly address the opioid epidemic.

“A jetliner a day,” Dean says. “365 days a year.”

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC).

The congresswoman knows the shame associated with addiction is partly why Congress and federal health agencies haven’t tackled this epidemic as they have when airplanes crash, like when Boeing lost two 737 Max planes in a five-month time span back in 2019.

“What did the industry do? The world did? They grounded the plane. We’ve got to figure out what’s going wrong here,” Dean recalls, “300 souls a day are dying in this country. 275 to 300 souls a day right now are dying in this country. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, [Sunday], repeat, repeat, repeat.”

Writing the book and bringing their personal story into the public sphere has helped the family.

“So that in itself helps lift shame. It’s been really heartening, literally to come onto the floor [of the House of Representatives] and vote, and somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Mad, I can’t believe you wrote that,’ and ‘I saw myself and my struggles with my son and those kinds of things,” Rep. Dean says. “So the more people talk about it, the less shameful it will seem to others.”

Harry longs for more Americans to be open about their personal struggles with substances or their family experiences, because statistically more Americans struggle with these issues than our friends, family members and coworkers let on.

“The more of that inspirational the hopeful, optimistic side, I think it’s going to allow more people to feel comfortable talking about it, asking for help when they need it,” Harry tells The News Station, “because I know I was so ashamed to ask for help, and there were times when I would literally be more willing to die than to let people know what was going on because of how ashamed I was.”

Sadly, over the past two weeks hyper partisan politics combined with big egos and conspiracy theories stifled an opportunity for lawmakers in both parties to come together to highlight one of the most bipartisan issues in the nation: The opioid epidemic indiscriminately ripping through rural and urban, poor and wealthy, along with famous and unknown, families alike.

No American family is immune from the epidemic or the shameful shame Congress itself continues to perpetuate when lawmakers treat a deadly scourge like opioid addiction as if the issue is merely Washington politics as usual.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

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