President Bush proposes to spend $5.9 billion on bioterrorism preparedness in the fiscal year 2003 federal budget. It's an important line item, given the anthrax attacks and the CIA's congressional testimony this week that Al Qaeda is regrouping and "was pursuing a sophisticated biological weapons research program."
Though the proposal represents a 300 percent increase in funding for bioterrorism preparedness, it only typifies Big Government's problem-solving calculus — just spend more money.
Will the proposed spending really make us safer? Or is it a nice payday for the hard-lobbying bioterror industry and good political cover for the President? And should we really have to pay more for security from bioterror?
While spending $650 million to stockpile antibiotics and smallpox vaccine makes sense, the benefit to the public of the other proposed spending is less clear.
The bioterror budget includes $518 million for hospitals to improve infrastructure, planning and training exercises. Another $400 million is for states to "assess" and "strengthen" their bioterror response capabilities.
While these expenditures may seem reasonable, they are only vaguely defined in the budget document. One might wonder whether hospitals and states will use the money for purposes other than improving bioterrorism response.
Hospitals will receive money, among other things, to increase capacity. Does this improve bioterrorism preparedness or just save hospitals from spending their own money on new construction? Why build more general capacity for bioterror? This wouldn't have made a difference last fall and scenarios of mass bioterror are unlikely.
How can we be sure states don't reallocate bioterrorism funds, as they've done with their settlements from the tobacco industry? Those funds were supposed to be used for youth-smoking prevention programs, but have been used instead for highway construction and other purposes — no doubt useful, but hardly the intended purpose.
The National Institutes of Health is slated to get $187 million for a new research facility on its luxurious main campus in Bethesda, Md. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is getting $184 million for construction.
Are you feeling safer yet?
Assuming these expenditures somehow would improve preparedness, why can't they come from existing public-health budgets?
President Bush wants to give $697 million to the CDC for its Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion program, the primary vehicle through which our federal lifestyle police provide instruction concerning "proper diet, exercise and tobacco-use reduction."
Couldn't we forego at least some federal nannying for a year in favor of bioterrorism preparedness?
There's more flab over at the CDC's $156 million Environmental Health program. Much of this money is being wasted on quixotic efforts to link "environmental hazards and chronic diseases" — largely hypothetical phenomena evading proof despite 30 years of intense research efforts.
Almost the entire budget for bioterrorism could be funded by reducing, if not shutting down the federal government’s failed "war on cancer."
President Bush proposes increase spending on cancer research by $629 million, to a record $5.5 billion. This is in addition to the $40 billion-plus of taxpayer money already spent on the cancer research since 1971.
You don't have to take my word about the utter futility of this research. I recommend a visit to the Web site of the National Institutes of Health where the painfully slim progress in the federal government's war on cancer is presented.
The 1970s saw the development of cures for childhood leukemia and testicular cancer, according to the NIH. Since then, no new cures have been developed by taxpayer-funded research.
By all means, let's throw even more taxpayer money down this rat hole.
Why not step back from the cancer stalemate, take a deep breath and re-evaluate? In the meantime, taxpayer money that would otherwise likely be wasted on futile research could be spent improving bioterrorism preparedness.
Even the Washington Post — whose central government-loving editors rarely see a federal program they don't think should be expanded — are concerned about the proposed bioterrorism budget.
The Post noted in an editorial this week that the research budget for the National Institute for Allergic and Infectious Diseases is slated to increase from $36 million to $441 million — an 1,100 percent increase in a single year.
The Post politely warned this "rush to mobilize the research enterprise...must not translate into a flood of less than rigorous research" — that is, junk science — and that "the potential lurks in this bioterrorism bonanza for catastrophic waste." Indeed.
Taxpayers spend enough on public health and should not be expected to spend even more for security from bioterrorism. The federal government should economize before asking taxpayers for more. Who knows, perhaps some belt-tightening might even force the feds to ensure that money spent on bioterrorism isn't wasted.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).