In practically every way that matters, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a great phenomenon. The idea originated as a campaign to raise money and awareness about the fight against Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and as the summer has progressed, the viral effort has had extraordinary success.
But is there a political/policy angle to this? As it turns out, yes.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) noted on Twitter yesterday, "Since 2011, House Republicans have cut NIH funding by billions. And you thought dumping ice water on your head was cold."
Sam Stein fleshed this point in more detail, reporting yesterday, "Some of the very lawmakers who have taken the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness and money for ALS research voted for legislation that defunded ALS research."
The funding cuts, in this case, were caused by the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- otherwise known as the bill to save the United States government from default. As a condition of getting congressional Republicans to sign off on the debt ceiling hike, the Obama White House and Congressional Democrats agreed to budget cuts and future budget cuts that would be delivered via sequestration, an across-the-board cleaver that cut certain agencies' budgets by roughly 5 percent.
The National Institutes of Health was one of those agencies. It was forced to slash an estimated $1.55 billion from its programs. Among those was the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In Fiscal Year 2013, the NINDS budget was $1.53 billion, a $92 million decrease from FY 2012. For ALS-specific research, funding went from $44 million to $39 million.
The underlying policy at play is better known as "the sequester," which, to this day, many on the right still consider "the biggest conservative policy victory in a decade."
It's worth noting, as Stein did, that those who voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011 are not necessarily opponents of medical research in general, or ALS research in specific. On the contrary, some lawmakers voted for the legislation because they feared Republicans would follow through on their debt-ceiling threats and crash the economy on purpose. Other sequestration backers support research funding, but want the resources to come from private entities, not public resources.
Also, my point is not to rain on everyone's ice buckets. This campaign is not only fun, it's doing an enormous amount of good. All of this is to be applauded and celebrated. That said, if the goal is to raise awareness, part of that means mentioning that the public sector plays an important role in financing research on ALS and other diseases, and Congress is responsible for making these funding decisions.
Taking the challenge and participating in a fundraising campaign is a good thing. Congress financing medical research is a good thing, too.