Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Two Georgia congressmen say unnecessary environmental and security risks are endangering the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC is the largest federal agency headquartered outside the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, but Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) says some of the agency's Atlanta-area buildings need desperately to be replaced.
"The CDC has an essential role in defending Americans from bio-terrorism and other public health threats of the 21st century," Linder said. "Many of our nation's finest researchers are forced to perform under leaking roofs, covering their multi-million dollar computer systems with plastic tarps to protect them from dripping water."
"It's a modern-day wartime scenario that they're operating in out there," said Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), referring to the CDC satellite offices in Chamblee, Georgia. "But they're operating in World War II buildings."
Linder has proposed legislation (H.R. 3219) to increase funding for the CDC by $1.5 billion over the next five years.
That proposal has been added to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Public Health Security and Bio-terrorism Response Act, which Linder says may be considered Tuesday under suspension of the House rules. He is working to insure that an identical provision be included in the Senate version of the bill.
The proposal includes $300 million for fiscal year 2002 and 2003 for new facilities construction at the main CDC campus in Atlanta. The bill also includes $150 million for upgrades and enhancements related to fighting bio-terrorism.
Security is also a concern for the CDC, Linder says for example, because of the proximity of the laboratory loading docks to the storage facilities for deadly diseases such as the Ebola virus.
"Every time a loaded truck comes in there, Dr. Jeff Koplan, who is the head of the CDC, has to hold his breath," he said.
Linder dismissed critics who question the funding as a boon to his home state.
"I'm certainly not known for introducing new spending programs," he said with a chuckle. "This is not a 'pork project' for Georgia. It is a national security project, and it is essential that we treat it as such."
Chambliss reminded those who question their motives that he and Linder have been promoting the value of the CDC to U.S. national security for several years.
"It's unfortunate that it took September 11, and the incidents that followed September 11 to validate that argument," he added.
Linder acknowledged that some past CDC decisions and activities have been controversial, but he says that was before September 11.
"There have been controversies, and I've been very critical of the CDC in some of those controversies. Under a previous director, they decided that they were going to somehow regulate bullets as a health threat to the people of the United States," he said.
"All of that's been stopped by sober heads and clear thinking people. They are now focused mostly on communicable diseases and threats of anthrax and threats of bio-terrorism. I think (Dr.) Jeff Koplan is doing a first-rate job," Linder said.
One controversy, not directly related to the CDC, surrounding the addition of Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) as co-sponsor of the bill was resolved Tuesday morning. Barr wrote Linder Monday asking why, after numerous requests, his name had not been added as a co-sponsor of the bill.
"I have not seen that letter," Linder said. "When I heard that last night and I said I'd put him on the bill today."
He hopes the legislation will move forward quickly. Even though it could take five to ten years to complete the authorized construction projects, he believes the CDC can only improve its performance.
"In spite of the problems that they've got in their facilities, they're doing first rate work on this current problem," Linder said, referring to the CDC response to anthrax-laced letters sent through the mail. "They've got brilliant people there. They work hard, they scramble. But they work in decrepit conditions. This will fix that."