The Magazine

Almost Committed

The House GOP inches toward mental-illness reform.

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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When his House subcommittee held the forum “After Newtown: A National Conversation on Violence and Severe Mental Illness” in March, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) received bipartisan praise for what was to be the first of three hearings on the topic. Murphy, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, took the job in December, a few days before the atrocity in a suburban Connecticut elementary school. He earned good will from both sides of the aisle simply by examining the links between violence, severe mental illness, and federal policy, something Congress hadn’t done in decades. “You’re my hero for raising these issues,” Dr. Harold Koplewicz, a member of Vice President Biden’s task force on mental illness, gushed at the time. “I commend your leadership on this issue,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Rep. Bill Cassidy

Rep. Bill Cassidy


Murphy is an unusual politician. With his wireless oval glasses and smooth baritone voice, the 60-year-old comes across more like the child psychologist he was than a legislator. Few politicos quote from memory the medical journal the Lancet, and his knowledge of the topic has not been lacking.

At the subcommittee’s latest hearing, on May 22, his opening statement was crisp and dispassionate. He described the nub of the problem: “In 2009, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, otherwise known as SAMHSA, estimate[d] that about 11 million U.S. adults had serious mental illness, and 40 percent of these individuals did not receive treatment,” he said. “If we’ve learned one thing from the horrible acts committed by Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech in 2007, Jared Loughner in Tuscon, James Holmes at the Aurora, Colorado, theater in July 2012, or Adam Lanza, it is this: that individuals with untreated severe mental illness are a significant target for self-directed violence, including suicide, or violence against others.” And he pointed to a solution: “Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) laws—a less restrictive alternative to involuntary commitment. Numerous academic studies have shown AOT to be incredibly effective in reducing re-hospitalizations and re-arrests among, until then, untreated individuals with serious mental illness.”

But for every Tim Murphy in the House Republican caucus, there is a Billy Long. The Missouri congressman serves on Murphy’s subcommittee and has a background in talk radio; he not only represents the Tea Party wing of the party, but the faction that has no professional or emotional link to the 62 mass shootings that have taken place in 30 states since 1982. Long won his seat in 2010 partly by pledging to support a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. He makes no pretense that his priority in Congress is anything other than to reduce federal spending.

At the last hearing, Long told a roundabout story that had no direct connection to mental-illness reform. It was in response to a complaint from SAMHSA administrator Pamela Hyde, the lead witness, that sequestration had wiped out 5 percent of the agency’s $3.4 billion annual budget. A bear of a man who speaks in a flat Missouri twang, the 57-year-old former auctioneer said he bought a copy of Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Springfield on September 12, 2011, finished reading the book two or three months later, watched Woodward on TV, and ran into the esteemed journalist the same day. “I believe, but I’m not sure, it was on page 326, because I don’t know how to read a book on an iPad. But on page 326 it talks about where sequestration came from. Do you know where it came from? Whose idea it was?” he asked Hyde.

Long’s disquisition befuddled even seasoned legislators. Democrat Diana DeGette, who has represented her Denver district for nearly 17 years, moved her head back and narrowed her eyes at Long. Murphy and other House Republican leaders on mental-illness reform don’t admit this on or off the record, but their legislative plans seem crafted with the caucus’s Billy Longs in mind.

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