As soon as the first Ebola patient was diagnosed in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immediately snapped into action and began politicizing the agency’s funding “crunch” (as Politico described it). Here’s Sam Stein at the Huffington Post:
But CDC officials and lawmakers who support the agency warn that years of austerity has hobbled both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, both in terms of their ability to combat future outbreaks and their ability to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Democrats also did what they could to calm nerves, seeking out the nearest reporter to gripe about the insidious consequences of imaginary austerity. “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,” claimed the irresponsible Chris Van Hollen, failing to offer evidence to back up this astonishing assertion. Tom Harkin lamented “divestment” and “austerity cuts” at the CDC and NIH.
And let’s concede this: if the CDC needs additional funding to deal with legitimate health scare like Ebola, it should certainly be available. What shouldn’t be forgotten, though, is that CDC’s budget and purview have swollen over the past few decades as it has seen an infusion of funding due to temporary health scares and trendy crusades that often go well beyond any mission it should be pursuing.
For starter, the CDC’s biggest cutbacks came before sequestration. It never hurts to point out that the austerity we’re talking about was minor slowdown in the growth of spending – already corrected in the CDC’s case. In a March report by the Government Accountability Office investigating how 23 federal agencies and departments complied with sequestration, we learned that only one government job was lost during the fiscal year 2013 – at Department of Justice. And according to the report, the CDC was never forced to cut back on any programs that would have undermined Ebola prevention. According to the GOA, in fact, the CDC canceled a few contracts for “administrative support and infrastructure improvements” and cut back state grant awards by five percent.
In any event, almost every story that’s been written about the funding crisis at the CDC offers these two budget numbers:
2010: $6.467 billion
2014: $5.882 billion
What is also rarely mentioned is that CDC’s funding had tripled from 2001 to 2010, with big spikes in spending after the 2001 anthrax attacks and then again after the 2005 avian flu scare.
Yet, if there is a money crunch, perhaps the CDC needs to rethink it’s scope. The CDC can’t afford to keep a aerial ‘bio-containment unit’ on retainer, but it does have museum, a massive staff and a lots of waste and fraud. In 2007, Senator Coburn’s office authored a 115-page report detailing things like the CDC budget gimmicks, the agency’s hundreds of millions of dollars of waste on junkets and elaborate digs and its institutional failures to actual ‘control diseases’ – and this includes AIDs prevention. It’s doubtful things have gotten better.
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 often you inhale second-hand smoke and how often you do calisthenics. Though the CDC has done an admirable job in managing the panic surrounding Ebola, it is, historically speaking, a national leader in unscientific panic mongering. You might remember when top CDC scientists declared the “epidemic” of obesity would soon be the leading contributor to preventable death in the United States? The CDC claimed it obesity deaths had risen 33 percent between 1990 and 2000. It claimed that 400,000 people would die from being overweight. It turned out these numbers were made up, and the CDC was forced to revise the estimate by a mere 1,400 percent. That hasn’t stopped it for continuing to scare us about salt, sugar and anything else the Center for Science in the Public Interest (sic) is wringing its hand about these days.
Here’s the budget for the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity:
That’s just one of the CDC’s overreaches. So, surely we can come up with other ways to allocate CDC funds more constructively. Because if the CDC loses its grip on Ebola (and really, we have no reason to believe that) it will have nothing to do with “austerity” and everything to do with its own failures.