Up in smoke: Will Ramstad’s faith-based earmark hurt his chances to win drug czar post?


During his time in Congress, retiring Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad championed the needs of those experiencing mental illness or chemical addiction, often through the lens of his own experience as a recovering alcoholic. For that reason, his name tops the list of possible appointments by the Obama administration as either drug czar or as the administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). But one earmark by Ramstad could prompt some questions from Senate Democrats during a confirmation hearing if Ramstad is nominated for either position.

Ramstad rumored to be a leading candidate to lead mental health, drug abuse agency
By Jonathan E. Kaplan, Center for Independent Media
GOP Congressman Jim Ramstad has asked President-elect Barack Obama’s advisors to consider naming him to lead the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — and he’s enlisted top Democrats to help with his bid.

Ramstad, a Republican who is retiring this year after nine terms in Congress, approached Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) before Thanksgiving to discuss an appointment in the Obama administration. He would need support from Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, if Obama were to choose Ramstad to lead the $3.3 billion agency.

“Sen. Kennedy thinks very highly of Congressman Ramstad and feels that he is uniquely qualified to serve the country in this position,” a Kennedy spokesman said.

But Ramstad has also gotten support from allies in the House: Kennedy’s son, Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) have encouraged Obama’s senior advisers to make the appointment.

A Rhode Island Democrat, Kennedy has had two conversations about Ramstad with Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), Obama’s incoming chief of staff, and John Podesta, who is leading the transition team, a Congressional Democratic official familiar with the conversation said.

At an event last month at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Kennedy introduced Ramstad to former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who Obama likely will appoint to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kennedy jokingly introduced Ramstad to Daschle as the “next SAMHSA administrator,” a Congressional Democratic official said.

Although Ramstad’s name has been floated as the next “drug czar,” or head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Ramstad’s congressional allies believe that SAMHSA is a better fit and a more realistic possibility for the nine-term congressman.

The Kennedys and Ramstad have developed a close bond during the past few years borne from their experiences with addiction (Ramstad is Rep. Kennedy’s AA sponsor) and their work on legislation requiring insurance companies to provide the same coverage for mental illnesses as they do for physical illnesses. Ramstad and Kennedy are chairmen of the House’s bipartisan Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus.

In October, Congress approved Ramstad and Kennedy’s so-called mental health parity bill, which Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) initially championed before his untimely death in 2002. The bill was used as the vehicle to pass the $700 billion financial rescue package.

Ramstad may see less opposition as SAMHSA head than he would if named “drug czar.” While several interest groups oppose Ramstad as “drug czar,” sending a letter to Obama criticizing his opposition to needle exchange programs and medical marijuana, mental health and addiction advocates praised him.

“Appointing Jim Ramstad as SAMHSA director would raise the profile of addiction disorders within the agency,” Lizbet Boroughs, the deputy director of governmental relations at the American Psychiatric Association, said. “The past two administrators have been more mental health experts than addiction disorders.”

SAMHSA had not been decimated by budget cuts during the past decade or politicized. The biggest challenge is coordinating federal policy at the local level, Boroughs said.

Andrew Sperling, the director of legislative affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said Ramstad would be a “fantastic addition” to the agency.

Other advocates, however, had a more tepid reaction.

“It’s a mixed bag at best,” Bill Piper, the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “On the one hand, heading SAMHSA would put him in a good position within the Administration to champion the cause of implementing ‘parity’ fully. And he would no doubt fight for higher overall levels of drug treatment spending and be able to build Republican support in Congress.”

“But at the end of the day the most important issue isn’t funding for treatment per se, but funding for quality treatment. For years Rep. Ramstad’s parity bills excluded methadone and other Opioid treatments proven by decades of research to be the most effective treatment for heroin addiction,” Nadelmann said. “This was a subject of dispute between him and Senator [Paul] Wellstone (who was the lead sponsor of the Senate version).”

Despite the buzz over Ramstad, his supporters acknowledged there are other candidates and that Obama is getting advice from other sources, including Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick, an early supporter of Obama’s. Patrick has worked to increase spending on programs to help children coping with mental illness.

“Ultimately people have this is the president’s pick, at the end of the day,” the Congressional source said. “A lot of people are advising Barack and he will take a lot of suggestions from a lot of people and make up his own mind.”

A spokesman for Ramstad did not return phone calls for comment.

Jonathan E. Kaplan is the Center for Independent Media’s Washington correspondent.

Earlier this year, Ramstad sponsored a $235,000 earmark for the Minnesota Teen Challenge (MNTC), an Assemblies of God drug treatment center with a history of controversial therapies and overt religious indoctrination.

MNTC is part of a national network of drug treatment and “discipleship training” centers called Teen Challenge.

Teen Challenge programs across the country typically describe themselves in these terms:

“Being a Christian discipleship program, it endeavors to minister to the whole person, helping them to become mentally sound, emotionally balanced, socially adjusted, physically well, and spiritually alive through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Teen Challenge’s overt Christian message is extends to outright conversion — at least according to its leaders. During a congressional hearing in May 2001, Congress members challenged the ability of Teen Challenge and other faith-based initiatives to offer government services without overt religiousness. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) asked Teen Challenge Executive Director John Castellani if the organization hired non-Christians. Castellani said no. When asked if Teen Challenge takes non-Christian clients, Castellani said they did and he then bragged that some Jews who complete Teen Challenge programs become “completed Jews.”

In Minnesota the program requires signing a statement acknowledging the program’s Christian nature:

I will participate in daily devotions, Bible reading, and prayer. I will participate in the Teen Challenge choir which performs Christian songs at weekly church services and special events. I will participate in lecture classes, individualized study courses, group counseling, individual counseling, and other program components that are based on Christian principles. I will attend church services when scheduled. If offered the opportunity to partake in communion or water baptism my participation is voluntary. If I object to the religious nature of this program and its requirements, I will notify the Dean of Students and receive a referral to another program of my choosing.

Despite those voluntary statements, a number of MNTC participants are ordered by the courts to complete the program — or else end up in jail. Just this Monday, a Minnesota judge sentenced a 27-year old Crystal man to MNTC. And dozens of others are sentenced to the faith-based treatment center each year.

Working for MNTC is also difficult for non-Christians, even if the program welcomes non-Christian applicants. The employment application contains this statement:

I understand that MN Teen Challenge is a Christian church ministry affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. I understand that should my application be accepted, I will be working in an environment that is decidedly Christian in nature, and I hereby agree to abide by the bylaws, policies, and procedures of Minnesota Teen Challenge. I further understand that although my religious beliefs and practices may differ from those of Minnesota Teen Challenge, I will respect the religious views of MnTC and its leadership. I will refrain from promoting any beliefs or publicly demonstrating any behavior that contradicts the teaching, philosophy, or beliefs of the MnTC program during working hours, or while on MnTC property.

For non-Christian employees at a federally funded program, even leaving the office to privately pray in a vehicle in the parking lot could be grounds for immediate dismissal. For non-traditional families, bringing in pictures of loved ones could be grounds for dismissal. For Catholics, displaying any symbols that disagree with Pentecostalism could get an employee fired.

Know the Truth

MNTC is using its federal funds in Minnesota for a program called “Know the Truth.” The program works in middle schools, high schools and churches to encourage students to abstain from drug use and to help teens and parents talk about tough issues like drug use.

While MNTC has been attacked over the earmark, it contends it hasn’t used the money for religious purposes. The MNTC administration director offers this statement about the Know the Truth program:

Minnesota Teen Challenge is scheduled to receive a direct grant from the federal government to be used exclusively for a non-religious drug and alcohol abuse prevention program. This program contains no religious content whatsoever and has been presented to over 30,000 junior and senior high school students across the state. Minnesota Teen Challenge is aware of, and in agreement with the constitutional restrictions placed on receipt of government funds. We take great care to ensure that all federal money is strictly accounted for and that none of the dollars are ever used for religious purposes.

Know the Truth is one of those gray areas that separation-of-church-and-state advocates watch carefully. While MNTC says religious purpose is scrubbed from the program, the program itself is a referral to the overtly religious drug treatment programs. The name “Know the Truth” is a common theme in evangelical Christianity owing to the New Testament verse John 8:32, “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

The Know the Truth program relies on the life stories of graduates from MNTC’s drug treatment programs, and those stories invariably have overtures of religious awakening as a route to freedom from addiction.

One such Know the Truth night at a Leroy, Minn., church highlighted the stories of Gina, Shaun and Bethany as recounted in the Leroy Independent.

“The bottom came, [Gina] said, when she was in jail for the second or third time and she was told by a person to ‘pray to God, just like you’re talking to me.’ This helped she said because she did need help desperately, and she knew God had heard her plea when her mother called that Gina’s children were being returned to her mother’s home, rather than being adopted out as had been the plan,” it read. “Shaun and Bethany also shared their stories of drug addiction and with God’s help had recovered and are now working with MN Teen Challenge.”

Is the Know the Truth program different when offered in a church instead of a high school?

Federally funded faith-based programs are controversial for the very reasons that make faith-based programs work for those who share the programs’ beliefs. The faithful cannot remain true to their faith if the government demands that faith be removed from a part of the program. The government cannot fulfill its commitment to the taxpayers if it supports a program that requires a certain faith from the staff and participants.

Ramstad’s position on faith-based recovery programs will come under further scrutiny if he secures a top job in the Obama administration.