The House approved a bill Thursday to give the government a better chance to weed opioids such as deadly fentanyl out of mail coming in from overseas, taking more concrete action to try to halt the epidemic of dangerous drugs.
The bill, approved on a 353-22 vote, requires foreign shippers to submit electronic data about their packages in advance of sending them through the U.S. Postal Service.
By 2020, the post office must share all of that data with customs officials, and starting in 2021, the Postal Service will reject packages that didn’t have their data submitted.
Private carriers like FedEx already submit electronic data on foreign parcels before they arrive at U.S. ports, yet only a portion of foreign posts provide it to the U.S. mail system. Customs agents say the data is a key tool in targeting suspicious packages that may contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is far more powerful than heroin and can kill in tiny amounts.
A congressional investigation this year found it is far too easy to order fentanyl from labs in China. It takes little more than a Google search, a bank account and a post-office box.
“I’m confident that this bill, shaped by Republican and Democrats working together, will make a difference in the opioids crisis and help protect many Americans,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady said.
The House also approved a bill, 230-173, that pilots a plan to set aside Section 8 vouchers to provide temporary housing to people recovering from drug addiction.
Some Democrats said while the bill had good intentions, they worried Republicans wouldn’t supply enough funding to ensure that addiction sufferers did not supplant victims of domestic violence or others in search of housing.
The votes capped a marathon week of bipartisan action on non-controversial policy changes to try to reverse the opioid epidemic, from publishing a dashboard of nationwide intervention efforts to educating Medicare recipients about the risks of addictive pain pills. Other measures gave FDA inspectors more power to destroy dangerous drugs at the border.
A majority of the measures will be combined into a single bill for the Senate to consider, though House leaders said they’re not done with the issue.
“We’re going to legislate and evaluate and legislate and evaluate into the future as well,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden told a policy event hosted by The Washington Examiner.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, New Jersey Democrat, said the post-office legislation passed Thursday includes a waiver that allows the post office to exempt nations that lack capacity to transmit advanced data and do not pose a substantial risk of violating U.S. laws.
“The United States Postal Service will not be penalized for issues that are outside of its control, and should be able to comply with its international commitments,” Mr. Pascrell said.
Some Democrats objected to the bill, saying it was still too disruptive for the post office.
Yet Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and chief sponsor of a companion bill known as the STOP Act, said the threat of fines will prod the post office to demand the data. His state suffers from one of the highest overdose rates in the country, and he’s grown impatient with lagging efforts to subject postal services to the rules that govern private couriers.
He also said President Trump supports his effort.
“House passage of the STOP Act is a significant step forward in our efforts to help stop deadly synthetic drugs like fentanyl from being shipped into our country,” Mr. Portman said in a joint statement with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat. “Now it’s time for the Senate to act as well.”
For its part, the U.S. Postal Service said it will “continue to work collaboratively” with lawmakers as the bill wends its way to passage and “offer helpful suggestions on the bill text.”
“As we have done throughout our history, the Postal Service is committed to taking all practicable measures to ensure our nation’s mail security, and provide the American public the best, most efficient service possible,” spokesman David A. Partenheimer said.