Trump administration isn't backing off proposed cuts to CDC budget

In early February, the White House unveiled a budget that called for deep CDC cuts. Yesterday, the administration refused to back down.
Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announce first Ebola case diagnosed in the USA.
The entrance to the main campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga., on Sept. 30.JOHN AMIS / EPA
By Steve Benen

It was a month ago yesterday when the White House released its official budget for the coming fiscal year, to the delight of Donald Trump's political opponents. Writing for Esquire, Charles P. Pierce took a look at the latest blueprint and concluded the document deserved to be seen as "political suicide."

As we discussed at the time, it was a reasonable assessment. Trump's budget is brutal towards Americans struggling most. It proposes slashing health care investments. It eyes cuts to education and environmental safeguards. It targets the same social-insurance programs -- so called "entitlements" -- that the president swore he'd never touch.

But there was another element that Team Trump probably didn't appreciate the significance of at the time: as the coronavirus threat was just starting to come into focus in early February, the White House recommended significant cuts to investments at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

To be sure, this president had called for deep cuts to the CDC budget before, and Congress ignored those requests. But calling for CDC cuts in the midst of a global viral outbreak seemed especially bizarre.

Stranger still, the White House apparently hasn't changed its mind. The Hill reported yesterday:

Russ Vought, the acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, on Tuesday doubled down on proposed cuts to health services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), despite the coronavirus outbreak.

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) reminded the White House budget director that the president's blueprint proposed cuts to both the CDC and the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund. The Pennsylvania Democrat asked, "The question is today, as we sit here and we know about coronavirus and the impact it's taking on the people of the world and the economies of the world and the stock market and everything, as you sit here today, are you ready to take that back?"

It would've been easy for Vought to make some comments about "changing conditions" and "unexpected fiscal demands," but instead the White House budget director replied, "If you're asking if I'm sending up a budget amendment, no, I'm not sending up a budget amendment."

In other words, as far as Team Trump is concerned, the proposed cuts to the CDC have not changed.

Even some congressional Republicans have raised concerns with the direction. Nearly three years ago, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in response to the administration's proposed budget cuts, "I promise you the president is much more likely in his term to have to deal with a pandemic than an act of terrorism. I hope he doesn't have to deal with either one, but you have to be ready to deal with both."

Yesterday, in a hearing with CDC Director Robert Redfield, the Oklahoma congressman didn't reference his earlier warning, but he reminded the administration that budget-cut requests like these are pointless. "This is not something that's likely to go away, and I think that's something again I hope the executive branch realizes over time, regardless of who's there," Cole said, adding, "So there's no sense sending us a budget that cuts things that we're not going to cut, and doesn't work with us in areas where we want to make investments."