The Malignancy in Federal Medical Research

February 27, 2013 - 6:05 AM

When George W. Bush was stumping as a "compassionate conservative" in the closing days of the 2000 presidential campaign, he went to Florida and repeated a campaign promise to double the funding for the National Institutes of Health.

"I will lead a medical moon shot to reach far beyond what seems possible today and discover new cures for age-old afflictions," Bush said.

After he won Florida by a famously narrow margin — and thus was elected president despite losing the nationwide popular vote — Bush basically made good on his funding promise.

In fiscal 2000, the NIH spent $15.415 billion; in fiscal 2008, it spent $29.847 billion; and in fiscal 2012, it spent $32.781 billion. Even when adjusted for inflation, NIH spending grew from $20.55 billion in constant 2012 dollars in 2000 to $32.781 billion in 2012 — an increase of about 60 percent.

Now President Obama is complaining that the minor curtailments in anticipated federal spending that he signed into law in 2011 in exchange for a $2.4-trillion increase in the national debt will decimate the NIH's research capabilities.

"Even President Bush's director of the National Institutes of Health says these cuts will set back medical science for a generation," Obama said in his weekly radio address.

Dr. Francis Collins, the current director of NIH, told Congressional Quarterly last week that the sequester requires the agency to cut $1.5 billion from its annual budget — which would still leave NIH about 50 percent bigger in real terms then it was 12 years ago.

Sequestration at NIH, said Collins, would mean "across-the-board damage to virtually everything."

In fact, Congress needs to pay much closer attention to exactly how the now-bloated NIH is spending borrowed federal dollars.

In 2008, for example, Pete Winn of CNSNews.com did a story about the NIH spending more than $1 million on a project that studied hookah smoking in Syria. In 2009, Edwin Mora of CNSNews.com did a story about the NIH paying $2.6 million for a project that focused on the drinking habits of prostitutes in China.

Most recently, Liz Harrington of CNSNews.com reported that National Cancer Institute-funded researchers at the University of California at San Francisco had discovered that "astroturfing" by the tobacco industry had helped create the tea party movement.

Did America need these studies? No.

As President Obama hypes the impact of the sequester, Congress should begin aggressively investigating and exposing where taxpayers' money has actually been going in recent years. Over the last three presidential terms, the growth in the federal government has been obscene.

In fiscal 2000, federal spending was 18.2 percent of gross domestic product and the federal government ran a surplus. In fiscal 2012, federal spending was 24.3 percent of GDP and the federal government ran a $1-trillion-plus deficit for the fourth year in a row.

It is true that much of the growth in federal spending is driven by entitlements — including the Medicare prescription drug plan, a new entitlement signed into law by George W. Bush. But, at the same time, Congress and the last two presidents have also driven up discretionary spending.

The National Institutes of Health is a good case study in how both parties have worked to expand that spending. Bush, a Republican, campaigned promising to double the size of NIH as a way of persuading voters in swing states like Florida that he was compassionate and ready to spend other people's money to advance what he perceived to be their interests. Obama, a Democrat, has no intention of reversing the upward spending trajectory Bush endorsed and set for NIH.

Other than through the sequester — if they now let it go forward — Republican leaders in Congress have shown no will to turn things around.

They should let the sequester hit NIH and every other government agency. Then they should come back to Washington next Monday ready to demand far deeper cuts in federal spending as they begin exposing all of the ridiculous things the NIH and other federal agencies have been doing with money borrowed from generations of Americans yet unborn.