WASHINGTON, DC – Today, as Chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered opening remarks in a hearing entitled “Combatting the Opioid Crisis: Oversight of the Implementation of the STOP Act.” The hearing followed up on Senator Portman’s bipartisan Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, which became law in 2018. The STOP Act is working to help reduce the supply of fentanyl shipped into the United States through the U.S. Postal Service, and the hearing focused on how well federal agencies are implementing the requirements.
As the Chairman and Ranking Member of PSI, Portman and Carper conducted an 18-month investigation into this issue and released a stunning bipartisan report detailing how drug traffickers exploit vulnerabilities in our international mail system to easily ship synthetic drugs like fentanyl from China into the United States through the U.S. Postal Service. The STOP Act closes this loophole by requiring advance electronic data on all inbound international packages, including packages coming from China. Starting January 1, 2021, the STOP Act requires the Postal Service to refuse any inbound international packages without advance electronic data.
A transcript of Senator Portman’s opening statement can be found below and a video can be found here.
“This hearing will come to order. I see the witnesses, virtually, on a computer screen. I see my colleague, Senator Carper is here and I know we have some other colleagues who have checked in this morning already virtually and we’ll be hearing from them. We are here today to follow-up on the implementation of legislation called the STOP Act. This was a direct result of an investigation by this committee, and a couple of hearings, and some good work that was done to be able to stop this deadly fentanyl from coming into our country.
“I want to start by thanking my Ranking Member. Senator Carper, this will be our last hearing together, I’m told, as part of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. And I want you to know that over the past four years, you and your staff have been productive partners as we have undertaken a number of really important topics and had some success in passing legislation as well. We’ve looked at the treatment and care of unaccompanied alien kids by the federal government; we have investigated the security of personal and financial data held by both private companies and the federal government, and come out with strong recommendations; we have looked at loopholes in our sanctions program exploited by Russian oligarchs.
“Recently, we’ve done ground-breaking work on the influence of the Chinese government here in the United States, and this has included a review of the threat to academic freedom caused by having a Confucius Institute, say, on a university campus, but also we’ve exposed how China has systematically taken U.S taxpayer-funded research and IP to advance its own military and economic interests through these talent recruitment programs, like the Thousand Talents Plan. And we’ve written good legislation, bipartisan legislation that deals with this very serious issue. And we’ve looked at the national security risks associated with Chinese government-owned telecom firms licensed by the FCC to operate in the United States. So, I want to thank you for your continuing your bipartisan partnership and continuing the tradition of this Subcommittee, which is to really dig deep into serious issues and get something done, I would say on even a nonpartisan basis.
“Today’s hearing is the continuation of our work in this Subcommittee on the federal government’s efforts to crack down on the fentanyl coming into our country, and more broadly to deal with the fentanyl and opioid crisis that has seized our entire country and every state represented in this chamber. We started with a hearing in May of 2017 examining how illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, how it is being shipped into the United States through the U.S. mail.
“We found out that, unbelievably, almost all of this was coming through the mail system, into our communities, from China. And it was the number one killer and remains the number one killer. We conducted a six-month investigation into the issue then, and in January of 2018, Senator Carper and I issued a bipartisan report and held a hearing that detailed how online drug dealers in China were exploiting a loophole in international mail. That loophole allowed packages to be shipped into the United States with no identifying information or so-called “advance electronic data,” – AED -- which we will hear a lot about today, and if -- and only if --the package was shipped through the U.S. Postal Service. In other words, if it went through another channel, it had to have this AED, which is very important to law enforcement to be able to stop the fentanyl and other contraband from coming in.
“Our report described how during our investigation Subcommittee staff emailed with six websites located in China that advertised fentanyl for sale on the open internet. When asked, all six of these websites told us they preferred to ship through the international arm of the Postal Service because of this loophole. In fact, one of the websites actually guaranteed delivery of this deadly fentanyl into our communities, but only if the fentanyl was shipped through the Postal Service. So our own federal government was complicit in providing this poison into our communities.
“These online drug dealers in China preferred the Postal Service for a specific reason. In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress required private express carriers to collect AED on all packages being shipped into the United States. This is the FedExes, the DHLs, and so on. This data on the package’s shipper, recipient, weight, and contents allows the Customs and Border Protection folks to identify and target high-risk packages containing illegal items, including fentanyl. But Congress punted on whether the Postal Service should be required to collect the same data. So after 9/11, they said to, again, DHL, UPS, FedEx and others ‘you’ve got to collect it’ but they said with regard to the Postal Service, ‘we’re going to ask the Treasury Department, the Treasury Secretary and the Postmaster General to make a decision to issue a report if the same AED requirements should be imposed on the Postal Service.’ That never happened.
“This left the Postal Service -- and the mail it carries -- vulnerable to all kinds of contraband, including this deadly fentanyl. By failing to require the Postal Service to collect AED like private express carriers, Congress created a national security risk in the roughly 500 million international packages entering the United States each year. 500 million each year. This vulnerability of course was exploited by Chinese online drug dealers to guarantee delivery of illicit fentanyl into the United States through the Postal Service. Based on the recommendation of our report, in October of 2018, our Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, or STOP Act, was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. The STOP Act requires AED on all packages entering the United States starting next year, three weeks from now. So remember, this was back in 2018, October of 2018, we passed the law. We say by January 1, 2021 coming up a few weeks from now, you’ve got to have 100 percent AED of packages coming into America. Just as, again, what is already required by the other carriers.
“Spain, France, and Germany have followed our lead and announced that packages shipped to those countries without AED will be delayed or refused and returned to the sender starting on January 1, 2021. In fact, our legislation is consistent with the legislation that the EU put out generally, the European Union. But specifically, Spain, France and Germany have followed our lead and said as of January 1st, can’t accept these packages unless they have AED on them. This January 1st deadline was based on a generous timeline, again, that gave the Postal Service, CBP -- Customs and Border Protection -- and the State Department over two years to prepare.
“The STOP Act also set other milestones for the three agencies here today. These agencies failed to meet any of the important deadlines set out in the legislation. So the law is passed, we set some deadlines, I think they were reasonable, they were well thought out. Not a single important deadline was actually met. The STOP Act required the Postal Service and CBP to conduct a Joint Strategic Plan for the management of AED by December 23, 2018, two-years ago. The plan was not submitted to Congress until March 29, 2019.
“The STOP Act required CBP to finalize regulations regarding how packages would be dealt with that had no AED by October 2019. Those regulations weren’t even submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review until August of 2020. We were told those regulations have now been passed back to the Customs and Border Protection – CBP -- people with comments, but we still don’t know when they will be final. I hope we’ll learn that today. And the STOP Act required the Postal Service to collect AED on 70 percent of all packages and 100 percent of packages from China by the end of 2018, so we’re talking about way back in January of 2019. Yet in January 2019, the Postal Service had AED only on about 57 percent of packages from all foreign posts, not 70 percent, and only 76 percent of packages from China, not 100 percent.
“The State Department also has a role. Through efforts at the Universal Postal Union, of which the United States is a member, along with all foreign posts, the State Department leads the efforts to collect AED from our foreign partners. It is true that the rate of international packages with AED has improved over the past few years since the implementation of the STOP Act, and I appreciate that. And it has made a big difference and it’s saved a lot of lives, and in fact less fentanyl is coming into the country because of that. Three years ago, only 26 percent of international packages shipped through the Postal Service had AED. By January 2020 it was 67 percent – that’s a nice improvement. Unfortunately, during COVID that amount has actually dropped off to about 54 percent. So we were up to 67 percent, now we’re down to 54 percent in October of this year. We were making good progress and recently we have seen a drop-off. We want to know why.
“As noted, on January 1st, the Postal Service and CBP will be required to refuse any international package without AED. This means that because deadlines weren’t met, a substantial number of packages will be turned away starting on January 1, 2021. I’m told there’s about 150,000 packages a day expected to be coming in during that time period. Of concern, some of the countries failing to provide AED on the majority of their packages are some of our closest allies: the United Kingdom and Australia to name a few. We need to tighten up on that.
“The number of seizures of illicit fentanyl in inbound international mail is down, as I said, and that’s good news. According to Mr. Cintron’s testimony, today, dramatically down. And again, we’re very pleased to see that. That means more lives saved, fewer people falling into addiction. Fentanyl is the deadliest of the drugs. It seems the threat of the STOP Act and the increased ability to target packages containing illegal items have worked. However, I understand that seizures of illicit opioids have shifted to the domestic mail stream, mainly in packages coming from locations near the Southwest border. We have reason to believe that Mexico continues to be a conduit for fentanyl and in fact some of it is actually being produced there now, partly because of the STOP Act. The way that traffickers send it has been shifting, not to come directly into our postboxes here in the United States and to people’s homes, but to go through Mexico.
“However, I do understand that these packages coming from locations near the Southwest border are probably being brought across the border first. So I hope we’ll hear today from how the U.S. Postal Service and the Customs and Border Protection folks are dealing with this new threat, including ensuring the safety of our mail carriers. So, we’ve got a lot to talk about at today’s hearing. We need to understand why none of the milestones Congress established in the STOP Act were met. We need to understand how the Postal Service and the Customs and Border Protection folks plan to deal with the packages with AED starting three weeks from now. And we need to know what efforts the State Department is taking at the Universal Postal Union to encourage other countries to provide AED on its packages.
“I appreciate the witnesses being here today and I look forward to hearing their testimony. With that, I’ll turn to our Ranking Member, Senator Carper.”