This story is a few days old, but I just ran across it, and it’s a useful vehicle for a little rant:
The United States government has pledged to send help to West Africa to help stop Ebola from spreading—but the main agencies tasked with this aid work say they’re hamstrung by budget cuts from the 2013 sequester.
On September 16, the Senate Committees on Appropriations and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing to discuss the resources needed to address the outbreak. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked NIH representative Anthony Fauci about sequestration’s effect on the efforts.
“If even modest investments had been made…the current Ebola epidemic could have been detected earlier, and it could have been identified and contained.”
“I have to tell you honestly it’s been a significant impact on us,” said Fauci. “It has both in an acute and a chronic, insidious way eroded our ability to respond in the way that I and my colleagues would like to see us be able to respond to these emerging threats. And in my institute particularly, that’s responsible for responding on the dime to an emerging infectious disease threat, this is particularly damaging.” Sequestration required the NIH to cut its budget by 5 percent, a total of $1.55 billion in 2013. Cuts were applied across all of its programs, affecting every area of medical research.
Dr. Beth Bell, director of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, testified before the committee, making a case for increased funding. Her department, which has led the US intervention in West Africa, was hit with a $13 million budget cut as a result of the cuts in 2013. Though appropriations increased in 2014 and are projected to rise further in 2015, the agency hasn’t yet made up for the deficit—according to Bell, $100 million has already gone toward stopping the Ebola epidemic, and much more is needed. The United Nations estimates it will take over $600 million just to get the crisis under control.
This is the usual cry of government: we have done a horrible job, so give us more money. We at the IRS have targeted conservative groups and destroyed the evidence. Give us more money. We at the CDC have failed to plan for an inevitable Ebola case in the U.S., and even told quarantined people to go to the store. Give us more money.
I call bullspit. It’s been seven years since Tom Coburn released his 2007 report on CDC overspending, but there is nothing new under the sun, so let’s take a walk down recent memory lane:
A Republican senator Tuesday released a report critical of spending at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), saying the agency “has wasted and continues to waste hundreds of millions of tax dollars, but keeps asking taxpayers for more.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, a practicing physician and ranking member of an oversight subcommittee, issued a 115-page minority office report questioning the CDC’s spending on projects including an employee fitness center with $200,000 in equipment such as zero-gravity chairs and a mood-enhancing light show, and a $1.7 million effort to have accurate medical information portrayed in movies and TV shows.
. . . .
Coburn’s report on the CDC provided details on a massive construction project at the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta that has exceeded $1 billion.
The new buildings include a $106 million communications center with a 70-foot-wide-by-25-foot-tall wall of plasma video screens for visitors, the report says. The center is named after Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who was the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing CDC spending. A video production studio at the center cost $18.6 million, the report says.
The new construction includes a $110 million headquarters building named after Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the former chairman of the subcommittee shaping the CDC budget. Coburn’s report says the CDC spent $9.8 million on furniture for the building.
Things have not gotten much better. Keeping the country safe from the outbreak of a deadly virus is one of the few things the federal government does that falls within the constitutional framework of limited government. Protecting the country is a core function of government — but as Glenn Reynolds notes, the CDC has lost sight of its “one job” (as in: “You had one job!”):
As The Federalist’s David Harsanyi writes: “The CDC, an agency whose primary mission was to prevent malaria and then other dangerous communicable diseases, is now spending a lot of time, energy and money worrying about how much salt you put on your steaks, how close you stand to second-hand smoke and how often you do calisthenics.”
These other tasks may or may not be important, but they’re certainly a distraction from what’s supposed to be the CDC’s “one job” — protecting America from a deadly epidemic. And to the extent that the CDC’s leadership has allowed itself to be distracted, it has paid less attention to the core mission.
In an era where new disease threats look to be growing, the CDC needs to drop the side jobs and focus on its real reason for existence.
Reynolds notes that the CDC admitted letting its guard down on Ebola:
CDC officials acknowledged that widespread hospital awareness didn’t kick in until the recent case in Dallas.
“We let our guard down a little bit,” said Abbigail Tumpey, a CDC spokeswoman, referring to the country’s health-care systems. “We as a health-care system have to make sure not to let our guard down and be vigilant that patients with Ebola could show up at any U.S. health-care facility. . . . Now that we’ve seen this happen, we know now that we need to do more to make people feel prepared.”
What is needed is not more money. What is needed is focusing on the real job at hand — and doing it without whining about needing more money.