Will Donald Trump cut 95% of the budget for the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the midst of an opioid epidemic? Bloomberg and other news agencies reported from a leaked document that the White House will consider that budget cut, which prompted an avalanche of criticism from Congress and the media:
The Trump administration is weighing a cut of almost 95 percent of the budget for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy at a time the president has pledged to aggressively combat opioid addiction, according to an internal memo.
The office, which coordinates much of U.S. strategy on illegal drugs including responses to trafficking, could see several grant programs for drug prevention discontinued under the proposal, which was decried by prevention advocates and members of Congress from both parties when it was reported on Friday.
“These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking and, if carried out, would cause us to lose many good people who contribute greatly to ONDCP’s mission and core activities,’’ Richard Baum, acting director, wrote Friday in a staff memo that was provided to news outlets.
Bloomberg’s report also included pushback from administration officials over the accuracy of the report. Reince Priebus insisted on Fox News Sunday that no decision had actually been made on funding for the ONDCP, and that the new administration has looked at ways of streamlining the effort to get rid of duplication. “Judge President Trump by his actions,” the chief of staff told Chris Wallace:
WALLACE: OK. Speaking of the budget and the president’s priorities, the president talks about fighting the opioid drug epidemic. But in a new budget proposal, he’s promising to gut or proposing to gut the White House office of the drug czar. And I want to put this up on the screen. Funds for the drug czar’s office would be cut 95 percent, eliminating its two major programs. And the acting drug czar, Rich Baum, emailed the staff of this White House office: these drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking. Why on earth when you say that there’s an epidemic and you’re fight it would you cut the drug czar’s office 95 percent?
PRIEBUS: First of all, that’s a leaked document and it’s — and I would tell you that nothing is final in this debate and discussion in regard to this particular issue, in this particular office.
WALLACE: The drug czar takes this pretty seriously.
PRIEBUS: Great. Good for the drug czar, and had — I mean, he should take it seriously, that’s his job. Secondly, we have duplicative services in this regard all over the place. You’ve got in the Department of Justice. You’ve got it in the HHS. And so, that’s the first level. But, secondly, I don’t think any president showed more commitment in the first 100 days in regard to tackling opiates putting a commission together. Obviously, putting Governor Christie in charge —
WALLACE: I understand. Which is why people are so surprised about the drug czar’s office being cut.
PRIEBUS: So, what I would say is, again, back to the beginning. It’s a leaked document, nothing is finalized. There’s work being done at HHS and DOJ. I would always tell people, judge President Trump by his actions, not leaked documents and hypotheticals. And the actual actions of this president is a total commitment to this epidemic across this country.
Earlier this morning, Christie got an opportunity to answer the question himself. When George Stephanopoulos pressed him about a 95% cut to the budget on the issue he’s quarterbacking for the White House, Christie told the Good Morning America host, “I just don’t believe it’s going to happen.” When pressed repeatedly to explain, Christie again responded, “I have good reason to believe it’s not going to happen, George,” and then added, “I think that funding will take other forms as well”:
Christie also argued for a greater role for the states in determining both funding levels and policy approaches to addiction:
“Governors know what’s best for their people,” he said.
“For eight years, Republican governors were clamoring for [the Obama administration] to give us more control.”
That’s certainly true for Medicaid, and Republicans have responded by offering reforms that will transform more of it into a block-grant structure. That makes sense for fighting addiction too, as states and regions face different threats and different kinds of populations in those fights. Subsidiarity and local control of these funds means more accountability on their use, and a lower bureaucratic overhead as well, allowing for nimbler and more effective application of resources.
The “95% cut” story seems very premature and out of context for those reasons, and just in terms of common sense. Yes, it’s possible that the Trump administration wants to dump the war on drugs, but why not just simply make that argument? The libertarians would love it, and it might ingratiate Trump to millennials who are distrustful of him to the point of paranoia. However, it’s crystal clear that Jeff Sessions has no intention of relenting on the war on drugs, and might get a lot more interventionist on marijuana, too. That doesn’t square at all with a 95% cut in drug-enforcement and addiction-relief efforts, which means that the leaked memo is probably taken way out of context — and possibly leaked for that very purpose.
The most likely approach will be to shift resources around to streamline efforts and increase effectiveness. That will mean that some within the bureaucracy will get impacted more than others, but we can’t fully know what it means until we see the whole effort. That’s what Priebus and Christie point out, and it’s worth exercising a little patience to see what the final proposal looks like — and whether Congress adopts it, or goes its own way entirely.