Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) could hardly contain his amazement when Dr. Rahul Gupta, President Joe Biden's national drug control policy director, claimed that "protecting the border" with Mexico was among the administration's top priorities.
"Did you say that? Am I right, did you say he is doing a great job of protecting the border?" the incredulous Norman asked the hearing's sole witness.
Gupta responded: "We believe strongly that it is an important part of every nation to be able to secure and protect its border. There are a number of things that are going on in this area of counter-narcotics that I think are important to note.
"As I visit the border, I speak to the women and men on the border."
But Gupta was interrupted by Norman, who asked him if Biden "is taking the steps to close the border. Is that what I understand you to mean?"
Gupta replied, "The president is certainly taking the steps to ensure that our border remains secured—"
Norman interrupted, murmuring "Oh, my Lord," and said, "Okay, doctor, this is two different universes. ... I mean this is a mischaracterization, at best, for you to say that of this administration. ... We don't want words, we don't want hearings, we want actions."
The exchange between Norman and Gupta came early in the hearing, and it typified much of what was heard throughout the balance of cross-examination by committee members, including all of the Republicans and at least one Democrat.
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) set the tone of the proceeding in his opening statement by pointing to Biden's open border policies as the chief culprit in the overdose epidemic.
"Fentanyl is being smuggled across the southwest border at unprecedented rates. U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized over 11,000 pounds of fentanyl in Fiscal Year 2021. That is more fentanyl seized in one fiscal year than fiscal years 2020 and 2019 combined," Comer said. Comer is the top Republican on the oversight panel.
"The standard fatal overdose of fentanyl is 2 milligrams; 11,000 pounds of fentanyl is more than 5 billion milligrams. That means we seized about 2.5 billion lethal doses of fentanyl in one fiscal year. That does not include all the fentanyl that we know has been smuggled across our borders undetected.
"Cartels are overwhelming Border Patrol agents and providing a steady supply for dealers and users alike. So a primary question is 'What is President Biden going to do to secure the border and cut off the free flow of illicit drugs into our country?'"
The Biden strategy, according to Gupta, emphasizes getting treatment services and health care to as many victims of drug addiction as possible, while minimizing correctional penalties whenever possible.
The strategy also includes efforts to reduce the drug-trafficking profits of the drug cartels in the United States by blocking their ability to move cash, weapons, and people around internationally and within the United States.
Stopping drugs such as fentanyl at the border received only cursory attention in the White House statement on the drug control policy, focusing on border ports of entry despite the fact most of the narcotics enter the country across unsecured portions of the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
While Democrats on the panel praised the policy for emphasizing treatment, Republicans repeatedly turned the hearing's focus on the unprecedented surge of narcotics, especially fentanyl, crossing the border that began shortly after Biden took office.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) challenged Gupta to join him on a surreptitious visit to the border in his state after pointing to testimony given earlier in the year that CBP agents manage to stop only about 5 percent of all the illicit drug traffic coming across the border.
"I would love for you to come with me, just you and me, incognito. ... Just you and me, come on down to the border and I will take you to places where you can watch what is happening, you can watch our men and women of CBP overrun, so there are literally hundreds of miles unprotected, which is where the drugs are coming in," Biggs told Gupta.
Spokesmen for Biggs and Gupta couldn't be reached to determine if he plans to accept the congressman's invitation.
When Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) asked Gupta if he considers it more important for CBP agents to focus on processing people crossing the border illegally or stopping illicit drug smuggling, the White House official said he believes it is important to do both.
Donalds pointed out to Gupta that "when a border agent is at the Southern border and a group of people come out of the brush crossing our border illegally, the border agent, which usually just himself or herself, has to actually stop controlling the section they are responsible for and they have to go through the process of intaking everybody that approached them."
Gupta declined to respond to Donalds's question except to say, "I hope we can do both."
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) told Gupta, "It seems we have gone from one policy of trying to get people clean and sober to helping them go from one drug to another drug." Lynch was referring to the drug Suboxone, which is used in addiction treatment to minimize the negative effects of withdrawal from narcotics.
"We've taken the lid off and allow doctors to have hundreds of patients and just give them Suboxone and not really deliver any behavioral help services that would get at the underlying addictive activity," Lynch said.
Lynch said he has observed patients who had just received Suboxone from a treatment clinic go out on the street and trade it for narcotics.
"I'm just questioning this whole policy, we seem to be moving away from getting people straight, getting them clean, getting them sober, getting them back into their lives, and instead, we're getting them on different drugs and I just don't see a good result from that policy," Lynch said. "It's not working where I am, it's not working in the 8th Congressional District of Massachusetts."
Committee Chairman Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) concluded the hearing by saying, "Today's hearing makes clear that we cannot reduce the prevalence of drugs in our communities through interdiction and law enforcement alone. Nor is it possible through public health measures alone. Instead, we need to address both supply and demand."