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Responsible Tactics Matter

February 22, 2016
Weekly Columns

Like most rhetoric coming from President Barack Obama, his latest budget was filled with initiatives that sound good until you get into the details, especially the details regarding how to pay for these initiatives. This couldn’t have been more clear than in the method he proposed to deal with health threats to society posed by diseases like cancer and conditions like opioid abuse. While the president saw the value of enlisting biomedical and scientific researchers to deal with these problems, his proposed plan to pay for these policies is extremely irresponsible.

Now I am by no means arguing against taking strategic and effective action to cure cancer, prevent diseases or treat other serious conditions. Without question, I agree that society only stands to benefit when researchers have the adequate funding and the right tools to discover cures and eradicate diseases. But the president isn’t the first to call for solutions or spearhead efforts to address these and other glaring health crises. 

Last year, lawmakers in both chambers of Congress recognized the alarming prevalence of certain diseases and the related drain on federal dollars due to expensive treatments. Clearly, the best chance we have to slow down or prevent rampant diseases is through better research funding. In response to that need, I’m proud that the Appropriations subcommittee that I chair prioritized and boosted funding for the research capacity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last year. As part of the investment at NIH, I was especially encouraged that we were able to secure an historic increase specifically for Alzheimer’s disease research. And we paid for these increases by cutting wasteful spending in other parts of the government.  

Unfortunately, President Obama’s various plans for combating cancer and other health conditions are ill-conceived, ill-timed and irresponsibly funded with mandatory spending dollars. For example, the president unveiled his cancer moonshot initiative at a time when there isn’t even a permanent director at the National Cancer Institute to effectively lead such an initiative, and no effort has been made to nominate a replacement since the director stepped down almost a year ago. 

But more than anything, I am troubled by the president’s reliance on mandatory spending for his implementation of his health initiatives. As I’ve noted before, federal spending falls into three general categories: discretionary, mandatory and interest on the debt. Once the discretionary side of spending is agreed upon for the fiscal year, lawmakers get to work in the Appropriations Committee writing bills to fund various areas of the government. While discretionary spending is considered on an annual basis, mandatory spending is essentially on autopilot. Mandatory spending is made up of entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that are not subject to the appropriations process and are effectively “automatic” payments. These mandatory spending programs are by far the biggest contributor to our annual deficits and our growing debt. Proposing to increase them is simply irresponsible.

While I believe that progress can be made to prevent and cure various diseases, responsible tactics matter. The president’s recommended use of mandatory dollars not only removes valuable oversight that can only take place within the annual appropriations process, but it adds more dangerous weight to the heaviest and fastest growing portion of our debt. No matter how attractive the policies sound, it is never acceptable to pile on more debt without real reductions offset elsewhere or through serious entitlement reform.  

Certainly, I think it is possible to work together to find solutions. Last year, lawmakers in Congress set a good example by reaching across the aisle and prioritizing money for biomedical research. I am confident that we can do so again this year. Unlike the president, I also know we can do so without increasing overall spending.