When the House Committee on Government Affairs approved the Office of National Drug Control Policy's budgetary authorization last week, it did so only after a two-week delay. The vote, originally scheduled for May 15, had to be postponed after a furious lobbying effort by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project to alert committee Democrats that the bill contained provisions inserted by committee chairman and die-hard drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) that would give the drug czar's office the authority to use its billion-dollar National Youth Anti-Drug media campaign fund to campaign against drug reform initiatives and candidates supporting drug reform.
That lobbying effort paid off in a big way. Not only were the provisions allowing the drug czar to engage in partisan political campaigning stripped out of the bill, but the committee added new provisions barring the media campaign fund from ever being used to defeat pro-reform initiatives or candidates. It also removed language allowing the anti-drug ads to be aired without telling viewers they were government-sponsored propaganda and restored language requiring that the ads -- ostensibly aimed at preventing teen drug use -- actually provide information on local prevention and treatment services.
But wait, there's more. The revamped reauthorization bill also deleted a provision that would have punished states with medical marijuana laws by diverting federal law enforcement assistance dollars away from state law enforcement and into the hands of the feds via the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. And it includes the first hint of a rollback, known as the "Souder Amendment," of one of Souder's own pernicious drug war programs, the anti-drug provision in the Higher Education Act (HEA). Under the language approved by the committee, the drug czar is required to decertify his budget if the Department of Education applies the HEA anti-drug provision to students whose drug convictions occurred prior to the time they were enrolled in college.
As written by Souder and interpreted by the Department of Education, the anti-drug provision currently bars students from receiving financial aid even if their convictions occurred prior to their college days. Responding to criticism, Souder has repeatedly claimed that's not what he meant -- it was only supposed to apply to current students -- but that's what the bill he wrote said.
With the committee approving the revamped bill on a voice vote after it was resubmitted by Chairman Souder, it is clear that by the time the vote was taken, it was a done deal. But the deal was largely done thanks to the efforts of DPA's Assistant Director of National Affairs, Bill Piper, and MPP's director of government relations, Steve Fox. DRCNet asked them how they did it.
"Well, we had two lobbyists working full-time on it for starters," said DPA's Piper. "But it also has to do with the very real power the drug reform movement is gaining. We are beginning to demonstrate the ability to flood congressional offices with letters, email, and phone calls and the ability to get high visibility people to weigh in on our side. And Souder and the Republicans overreached. When we pointed out to the Democrats that Souder's bill would give John Walters the ability to spend a billion dollars potentially campaigning against them, that roused them like nothing else."
"First, we had to raise awareness," concurred MPP's Fox. "At first, the committee Democrats didn't think it was any big deal. But we started working the phones. I called Democratic Party organizations, the various party caucuses, telling whoever would listen that this bill would give Bush and Walters a billion dollars to use for partisan political purposes. That got their attention. It is probably the Democrats' fear of seeing this money used against them -- not deep problems with the anti-drug media campaign -- that got them aroused and got this bill changed," Fox said.
"Committee Democrats didn't even realize those provisions were there until we pointed them out," said Piper. "And then we helped them wake-up by starting a heavy lobbying effort from our membership. Five members of the committee are from California, and we have three California offices. We inundated them with constituent calls and emails. And we were able to get California law enforcement to call the committee about the HIDTA provisions. Committee members have to start wondering what's up when they find law enforcement and drug reformers on the same side."
Like DPA, MPP also activated its membership base to flood committee members with voter input opposing Souder's original bill, Fox said. "We know the committee noticed our members' input on this," he said. "On votes like this, we typically just alert our base in the districts of voting members, but this was such an important issue with national implications that we called a national alert," he explained. "I know we had over 3,500 faxes sent before the vote, and committee staffers told me the phones were ringing off the hook. The mass response is very important. They notice."
But both organizations also profited from the credibility they have built on the Hill with years of lobbying efforts. "MPP contacts congressional offices all the time," said Fox. "Last year, I spent months lobbying against the Barr amendment to the DC appropriations bill. I spoke to probably 140 different congressional offices about that. And we're constantly calling the Hill to gain support for the Barney Frank bill and the Truth in Trials Act." As for building MPP's credibility with Congress, said Fox, "we just try to be honest and accurate and tell them up front what's at stake. We've built up a track record on the Hill, and that's important."
Ditto, said DPA's Piper. "A presence on the Hill is crucial, and it's something that builds over time. And a victory like this will only make future lobbying efforts easier. We are showing Congress we can have some influence."
Face time on the Hill was also important, the two said. "We were meeting with both the congressmen's staff and the committee staff and educating them on the issue," said Piper. "This ended up helping Democrats fend off a weak substitute from Souder that would have left the door open for issue ads not expressly directed at an initiative or a candidate. According to our sources on the Hill, at one point the Democrats were threatening to vote against the entire authorization bill if that wasn't fixed. It was. The Republicans had to compromise if they wanted bipartisan support to make their drug war look reasonable."
"This was a big victory because we not only got the bad provisions out, we got some good ones in," said Piper. "We won decisively, and we proved we can win. As an added bonus, we gave Souder and the other committee drug warriors a bad case of heartburn."
A peeved and defensive Souder told Roll Call the legalizer lobby had distorted what he was trying to do. "A small group who devotes their lives to marijuana want to claim that preventing kids from using marijuana is somehow partisan and political because apparently they consider that drug to be their ideology," Souder said. "We tried in subcommittee to clarify that this extreme argument would not threaten the prevention activities of the media campaign -- a minor provision that was blown wildly out of proportion by the same extremists and some in the media to suggest that the committee intention was to permit the use of the media campaign for activities that everyone in this room would agree are wholly improper and partisan. That was never my intention or the intention of this bill," Souder said.
"Souder is either being dishonest or he wrote a very badly-crafted bill," shot back Piper. "The language was very clear. There was no way to read it other than as saying it explicitly gave the drug czar the power to engage in partisan political campaigns."
Drug reformers won a victory with the committee vote, but that is only one battle in one front in the federal government's drug war. The drug czar's media campaign did win the committee reauthorization vote, the propaganda campaign at taxpayer expense will continue, and at this point, the next battle will be to reduce the appropriations for the media campaign.
"There's not much chance of that in the House," said Fox, "but the Senate has been more interested in cutting back this program and more skeptical about its effectiveness. Last year, they cut it by $80 million, although the drug czar got some of that back in conference committee."
"This is a victory, but the drug war still marches forward," agreed Piper. "Still, when you get behind closed doors on the Hill, you get a lot of sympathy. There is a sense that the drug war has failed and an interest in a search for alternatives. There is still a wall to reform out there, but that wall is crumbling."