A Key Battle in the War on Drugs Is Being Fought Now in the Trump White House

  • The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy reportedly might cut its budget by 95 percent
  • A rift between career staff and political appointees contributed to this budget consideration
  • Two anti-drug programs would be moved to other agencies under the Office of Management and Budget’s proposal 

Career staff crucial to crafting the president’s budget proposals have long held a turf war with the White House’s drug policy office and are now taking advantage of inexperienced political appointees and unfilled leadership positions to try to gut the agency amidst the opioid epidemic, sources familiar with both offices told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy — headed by a so-called drug czar — crafts the government’s multi-agency strategy to combat illegal drugs in the U.S., and the Office of Management and Budget is reportedly considering cutting its budget by 95 percent.

The ONDCP also has a degree of authority over the 16 drug control agencies’ budgets as part of forming the strategy. It’s the only agency to hold budgetary authority besides the OMB — the organization that crafts the president’s budget — which causes tension between the two offices, several sources told TheDCNF.

“ONDCP has substantial powers in terms of going in and trying to shape those budgets” of drug control agencies, John Carnevale, a former ONDCP senior executive, told TheDCNF. “OMB just does not like that. Who controls the drug budget within the Executive Office (of the President) has been a long-standing battle since ONDCP’s creation.”

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Carnevale served under the first four drug czars, was previously an analyst with OMB, and is now CEO of a firm dealing with drug policy.

Kevin Sabet, an ONDCP senior adviser under former President Barack Obama, also noted the drug czar’s “unique budget authority” and added: “It’s an open secret in Washington that OMB has never fully embraced ONDCP. It’s expected for there to be some tension there.”

OMB proposed cutting the drug czar’s budget five times before the President Donald Trump administration, various news reports have shown.

“I don’t think the battle is confined to this administration,” Sabet told TheDCNF. “It’s been a long time coming.”

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Congress has typically rejected those proposals, but former President Bill Clinton reduced the offices staff by 83 percent, though it was ultimately restored, The New York Times reported in 1996.

“Bill Clinton cut it when he came in and then got a lot of blowback from Republicans,” Sabet told TheDCNF. “Trump should look at that example.”

More recently, OMB proposed eliminating about 95 percent of ONDCP’s budget in spring 2017.

“There’s a core group of career staff at OMB who oversee ONDCP and who would love to see that office closed,” Carnevale told TheDCNF. “It was no surprise when OMB came out last year during the transition and proposed to eliminate ONDCP.”

OMB’s proposal, which ultimately did not go through, was met with immediate backlash. Republican and Democratic senators alike, for example, sent letters to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney opposing the budget cut.

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“We saw what (OMB) wanted to do last year and it was silly,” Carnevale told TheDCNF. “It blew up in their face. The public pressure was so much they had to give in. But it’s clear to me that OMB career staff are unable to learn from their mistakes.”

In fact, OMB is considering proposing the same 95 percent cut again, Politico reported in January. It, too, was met with backlash: Another bipartisan group of senators and more than 150 organizations opposed the cut.

“This is an OMB exercise that will likely reoccur,” Carnevale told TheDCNF. “They’re going to take every opportunity available to them to close” ONDCP.

He also pointed out that presidential transitions provide OMB career staff with an opening to cut ONDCP, since the new political appointees don’t know much about the drug office.

“Closing that office at a time when we have one of the most serious epidemics, at least in my lifetime, is just plain foolish,” Carnevale told TheDCNF. “I don’t think OMB career staff are taking this drug epidemic seriously.”

“I think it’s absolutely fair to say the OMB career staff are doing a tremendous disservice to the president of the United States” by trying to gut ONDCP, he continued. “If this were correctly explained to the president, I’d hope he’d say, ‘This makes no sense.’”

Former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, however, disagreed that OMB career staff want to gut ONDCP over the drug control policy office’s budgetary authority. Instead, he suggested the cuts stem from a lack of leadership at ONDCP that can communicate the necessity and importance of the office to OMB staff.

“Why wouldn’t President Trump — who has spoken to the issue … who allegedly has a personal animus against drug and alcohol abuse — why wouldn’t the president have appointed a leader?” McCaffrey told TheDCNF. “It’s a mystery to me why the president wouldn’t see this as an important nomination.”

ONDCP hasn’t had a permanent head since Trump took office. Trump’s nominee, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tom Marino, dropped out after a news investigation revealed he sponsored a bill that effectively eliminated a powerful law enforcement tool used to fight illegal opioid distribution.

And recently, the White House announced that ONDCP’s 24-year-old deputy chief of staff would step down following media reports that his only professional experience was working on Trump’s presidential campaign.

“I don’t understand why the president can’t see that the country and his own political fortunes will benefit from vigorous leadership in this job,” McCaffrey told TheDCNF. He could think of 10 qualified people Trump could tap.

Having strong leadership at ONDCP is particularly important, given both the opioid epidemic and that OMB’s chief is intent on shrinking government, according to McCaffrey.

“Mulvaney, I think, is a Tea Party ideologue who is cutting government — and there’s a lot of good to that I might add — and this is another tiny chip he can throw in the fire,” McCaffrey said. Mulvaney may be “misguided” and hasn’t been told about ONDCP’s importance since the drug office lacks a permanent leader,  he noted.

Meanwhile, more than 64,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Tens of thousands of people are going down like a civil war battlefield,” McCaffrey told TheDCNF. “It’s not as if this is a marginal health crisis.”

Budget Cuts To Drug Control Policy Office Will Be ‘Damaging’ To Drug Control Programs

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy also heads two anti-drug programs, which would be moved to different agencies under OMB’s latest reported proposal, according to Politico. Critics have said such a move would be detrimental.

One program — Drug Free Communities, which aims to educate the young and decrease demand for illegal drugs — would be moved to the Department of Health and Human Services. The other – the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which mostly focuses on reducing the drug supply, primarily through law enforcement — would be moved to the Department of Justice.

“I’d worry about the programs being changed or administered differently … to the detriment of the effectiveness of those programs,” Carnevale told TheDCNF.

Sabet added, “I think it’d be damaging if ONDCP lost those programs. It allows them to synchronize programs and policy.”

The drug trafficking program, which forms regional partnerships between local, state and federal law enforcement, is a particularly successful drug control program, according to its national directors’ association congressional affairs liaison, David Kelly.

“It’s very important to the mission of ONDCP,” Kelly told TheDCNF. “They’re an essential component of an effective drug control policy.”

“It’s under the guidance of ONDCP, which is seen as a neutral agency and an unbiased agency under the president,” he continued.

Representatives from each level of law enforcement form a committee that governs each regional drug trafficking area program, according to Kelly, and ultimately prevents the federal government from micromanaging drug enforcement at a local and regional level. This instead gives the groups “a sense of balance and voice.”

“That would be lost if it went under the control of one federal agency,” Kelly told TheDCNF.

OMB proposed cutting the drug-prohibition enforcement program entirely in spring 2017, arguing that the program was a duplicate of other law enforcement initiatives.

“They’re not duplicative. They’re not redundant,” Kelly told TheDCNF. “They have different approaches. Other entities are more single-focused.”

“We’re in the midst of an opioid crisis, we’re in the midst of a very severe issue,” he continued. “The current make-up of ONDCP is so critically important. To separate out these programs at this juncture is not in keeping with the priorities and objectives of implementing a national drug control strategy.”

OMB did not return a request for comment.

“We will not comment on any leaked or pre-decisional documents prior to the release of the President’s (Fiscal Year 2019) budget,” a White House official told TheDCNF.

A version of this article appeared on The Daily Caller News Foundation website.

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