The case for bipartisan solutions


Sen. Rob Portman - Contributing columnist



In the midst of all the partisanship and division we hear about in Washington these days, there are also examples of constructive legislating making a positive difference in people’s lives.

One place this occurs is in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI).

I have chaired PSI since 2015, and I have used its investigative mandate and subpoena power to enact laws that solve problems and deliver results for the American people. And we do it in a bipartisan manner.

The most recent example was last week when the president signed the bipartisan Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act into law.

The STOP Act is legislation I authored informed by an 18-month PSI investigation into how overseas drug traffickers, mostly in China, exploit international mail screening to ship fentanyl—a deadly, synthetic form of heroin—into the U.S.

Hearing about the devastating trend of increasing fentanyl overdose deaths in Ohio and across the country, PSI began looking into this issue. We learned that the influx of relatively inexpensive fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin, coming through the mail had become the No. 1 cause of drug overdose deaths.

In early 2017, we held our first of two hearings on the subject, bringing in experts to testify as to how this could possibly happen.

PSI also conducted an undercover investigation to track the payment and shipment of these drugs. By posing as buyers, our investigators found that these drugs are available through a simple Google search, and overseas sellers essentially guaranteed delivery if the fentanyl was sent through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).

While federal law required private mail carriers to get advance screening data on packages entering the U.S. to allow law enforcement to identify and stop suspicious packages and prosecute the traffickers, the Postal Service was exempt.

Because it wasn’t required to get this information, USPS chose not to. As a result, drug dealers have exploited the Postal Service as a conduit for shipping deadly synthetic drugs into our communities.

Our conclusion at the end of the investigation was clear: we need this advance data on all packages coming into the U.S.—including those sent through the Postal Service—to combat this epidemic. That’s exactly what the STOP Act requires. It will save lives.

This is how Congress is supposed to work—and this is just the latest example of the investigative and legislative process working in a bipartisan manner through PSI.

Two years ago, PSI began investigating online sex trafficking, which, unbelievably, has been increasing in this country, in this century. Sex trafficking survivors in Ohio repeatedly told me that the ruthless efficiency of the internet had moved trafficking from the street corner to the smartphone.

As we looked into this relatively recent phenomenon of the online selling of women and children, we learned one website—Backpage.com—was responsible for the vast majority of trafficking, so we focused on Backpage.

When Backpage refused to respond to subpoenas issued by the subcommittee, the entire Senate had to step in to hold the company in contempt—the first time such a Senate vote had been taken in more than 20 years. When Backpage challenged that, we took our case all the way to the Supreme Court, and we won.

After reviewing millions of documents that the court required Backpage to produce, we found that the company knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking to increase its profits and then covered up evidence of its crimes.

But unbelievably, sex trafficking victims exploited through Backpage were unable to hold the company accountable in court because of broad liability protections from a 1996 federal law.

With this knowledge, we drafted bipartisan legislation called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which became law earlier this year. This measure allows victims of sex trafficking to get the justice they deserve; it allows prosecutors to go after online traffickers that were previously protected by a federal law; and it finally holds websites that knowingly facilitate these horrible crimes accountable for their actions.

Since becoming law, SESTA has significantly disrupted the online sex trafficking marketplace, and our report helped the Department of Justice indict Backpage’s executives and shut down the website.

As another example of PSI’s work, a recent investigation into failures of the Obama and Trump administrations’ handling of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. has resulted in the introduction of new bipartisan legislation to keep better track of and care for these children.

These examples of serious bipartisan legislating may not receive as much attention as the partisan fights, but they are worth holding up as models of the way Congress should act.

I know some days it can seem like Congress is broken, but I’m proud of the work we are doing through PSI.

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Sen. Rob Portman

Contributing columnist

Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.

Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.