By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
Here’s a lesson about how government works: Public officials think they should always have a larger pot of taxpayer money, no matter how badly they have misspent, misprioritized and misused the taxpayer money they already have.
That’s pretty much the only logical explanation for comments made last week by the head of the National Institutes of Health and some members of Congress. They argue that budget cuts at the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control hurt the agencies’ ability to be prepared for the international Ebola outbreak.
“NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It’s not like we suddenly woke up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,’” Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, told the Huffington Post last week.
He said the agency would “probably” have developed a vaccine by now if it hadn’t seen a “10 year slide” in support for research.
The same day, the Huffington Post argued that the CDC and NIH had been “hobbled” by more than $600 million in funding cuts over the past five years.
“There’s no doubt that the deep health care cuts that we’ve seen have made it more difficult to respond in a rapid and comprehensive way to the Ebola outbreak,” U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said on CNN.
Even once-and-future presidential candidate Hilary Clinton got into the act, arguing in an op-ed that spending cuts created by the congressional sequestration “were really starting to hurt” the CDC and other public health agencies.
And by the middle of this week, the issue had turned entirely political.
The whole thing is meant to reduce public debate over government spending to a single, obvious point: budget cuts literally kill people.
Would handing over more money to the CDC and the NIH have helped prevent the current Ebola outbreak? Perhaps.
But given the two agencies’ recent history, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that those extra funds would have been used in other, less productive ways.
The CDC, for example, was busted in 2007 by Oklahoma Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s office for a litany of questionable spending decisions.
Among them: spending $1.75 million over seven years on a “Hollywood liaison” whose job was to help movie and television studios develop accurate plot lines about diseases. To pay the position, the CDC tapped into an account that was supposed to be used to develop responses to bio-terrorism.
Making matters worse, the head of the Hollywood liaison office was found to be a former CDC employee who landed in one of the cushiest semi-retirements ever dreamed up by the federal government.
That spending might have brought more scripted realism to “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “General Hospital,” but it didn’t do squat to help combat Ebola or any other real-world disease.
The CDC also spent lavishly on a new headquarters and visitor center that opened in 2006 – even though the agency already had one visitor center, and it’s hard to imagine many tourists wanting to check out something like the CDC.
The agency blew through more than $10 million in new office furniture and built a $200,000 fitness center and $30,000 sauna on-site.
Even when the CDC was combating disease, it was wasting money, Coburn’s team found.
Though the agency spent more than $2.6 billion on grants for HIV and AIDS research over five years, the CDC acknowledged that many of those grants “have no objectives” or were otherwise useless. They kept funding them anyway.
“Many times the answer is to spend more money instead of redirecting the money or eliminating the waste,” Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit that tracks poor spending decisions by Congress and the federal bureaucracy, told Watchdog.org this week. “Programs that are completely ineffective might get cut by a few percentage points or something, but the wasteful spending still exists.”
And who can forget the CDC’s attempt to eliminate syphilis? In 1999, the agency asked Congress to give them extra funding for a special project meant to practically eliminate syphilis in the United States by 2005.
Congress responded by doubling the CDC’s budget for syphilis-related programs, and the CDC spent that extra money on drag shows and invited porn stars and strippers to speak at public events.
By 2005, not only did syphilis still exist, but the number of reported cases had increased by 68 percent.
This is the same agency that we’re now being told could have prevented Ebola if only it hadn’t seen its funding reduced over the past few years.
“This review of recent CDC expenditures demonstrates that a re-prioritization of CDC funding and a review of the approach to certain types of disease prevention are in order,” Coburn’s team concluded.
Since being embarrassed by Coburn’s report, the CDC’s track record has not exactly improved.
The agency has received more than $3 billion from a new research fund created by the Affordable Care Act, but has spent only $180 million of that bounty on researching dangerous diseases.
Instead, it has budgeted millions of dollars each year for community grants aimed at convincing Americans to make smart choices about their health — essentially taxpayer-funded advertising telling you to put down that giant soda and eat more salad.
Other grants awarded with Obamacare dollars have helped prop-up farmers markers and fund the installation of bike lanes, all of which are nice things to have — unless they’re coming at the expense of more important priorities, like researching deadly diseases.
The NIH has been no better.
As Mollie Hemingway points out at The Federalist, the NIH has seen its funding increase by 900 percent since 1970 — so much for those “funding slides” Collins was complaining about — and the Department of Health and Human Services budget will top $958 billion this year, with $30 billion earmarked for the NIH.
Again, it comes down to a question of priorities. Because the NIH certainly has enough money to put toward Ebola research, if it wanted to.
If the CDC and NIH had more taxpayer money, it’s possible they would use it all to conduct round-the-clock research on an Ebola vaccine. But it’s also possible — maybe even likely, given the history here — that they would blow that extra cash on another round of questionable projects and then come back to Congress and the American people, blaming budget cuts for why their failures.
Schatz says the blame should extend beyond the two agencies in question. If there really was such a need for spending at the NIH and CDC, Congress could easily find wasteful programs in other parts of government and direct those dollars to public health.
“Prioritization runs across the entire government,” he said. “When members of Congress come out and say something is underfunded, we should ask ‘how many times have you proposed eliminating a wasteful program and redirecting those funds?’”
This story was updated to correct the level of funding for the National Institutes of Health and the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Boehm can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org and follow @EricBoehm87 on Twitter for more.