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Cokie and Steven Roberts: Trump’s budget would weaken our health defenses

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Mitch McConnell can count. The Senate majority leader has 52 Republicans and needs 60 votes to break a filibuster. So when Congress returns from its Easter recess, Democrats will “have to play a major role” in the chamber’s deliberations, he told The Washington Post.

Democrats can use that leverage in many ways, but here’s a suggestion: Alter President Trump’s seriously misguided priorities that endanger the country’s health security.

Trump’s proposed budget would allocate vast sums to bolstering the military (a $54 billion increase) and building a wall on the Mexican border ($15 billion) while slashing programs that are vital to the nation’s welfare. No cuts would be more damaging than the president’s assault on two invaluable agencies: the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fortunately, some Republicans understand the president’s foolishness, including Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds those agencies. He called them “the front lines of defense for the American people for some pretty awful things,” adding:

“If the idea of a government is to protect the United States and its people, then these people contribute as much as another wing of an F-35 (fighter jet) and actually do more to save tens of thousands of lives.”

Saving lives is not just a moral issue, it’s an economic one. Money invested now — in promoting basic research, protecting against infectious diseases, providing vaccinations, denouncing smoking —  saves enormous amounts later. Just one example was emphasized recently by Bill Gates in a speech to the Munich Security Conference.

“The cost of ensuring adequate pandemic preparedness worldwide is estimated at $3.4 billion a year,” said Gates, who devotes much of his philanthropy to global health. “Yet the projected annual loss from a pandemic could run as high as $570 billion.”

The Trump budget slashes investments in health security instead of increasing them. The president’s priorities are not only a textbook example of “penny wise and pound foolish,” but they also reflect a deeply damaging mindset: a profound disdain for all the professionals — scientists and researchers, economists and engineers, journalists and judges — who measure and describe a world that does not square with the president’s prejudices.

Take the NIH, the largest biomedical research institution in the world, which enjoyed bipartisan support during the Obama administration. Trump would cut $5.8 billion, or 20 percent of its total budget. And the idea voiced by many conservatives, that private enterprise would pick up the slack, is simply wrong. Drug companies won’t invest in the costly research that produces many failures before an effective new therapy can come to market.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has made fighting cancer a personal crusade, says that Trump’s cuts “would set the NIH budget, and biomedical research, back 15 years — and that’s not hyperbole.

“This is no time to undercut programs, for God’s sake,” he added. “It’s time to double down — time to be sure we can deliver on the promise of science and technology to extend and improve lives.”

Under Trump’s budget, the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC, would lose 18 percent of its funding. And another program that supports the CDC’s preventive health efforts would be eliminated entirely.

That would mean more kids who don’t get vaccinated, more smokers who don’t quit, more drivers who don’t wear seat belts. And it would mean far greater vulnerability to global health threats like Ebola, Zika and influenza. As the Post reports: “Diseases travel fast and don’t recognize borders. In today’s connected world, a disease can be transported from a rural village to any major city within 36 hours.”

The threat, adds Rebecca Katz of Georgetown University Medical Center, is “not just from travel of people, but birds, too. You can’t build walls to stop birds.”

But that’s what Trump wants to do: build walls, buy bombs, rattle sabers and ignore reality. Cole says it best: “What the CDC does is probably more important to the average American than, in a sense, the Defense Department. You’re much more likely to be killed in a pandemic than you are in a terrorist attack, so you need to look at it that way. Those investments are extraordinarily important for the protection of the country.”

That’s why Democrats have to use their influence to protect those investments from the Trumpian tide. His budget priorities would make the country weaker, not stronger. They would endanger all Americans, including those who voted for him. And they must be changed.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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