Six Battleships Are Not Worth Slashing the CDC

When an outbreak of meningitis swept the nation this month, killing 23 and sickening 282, it was the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to trace the cause in contaminated vials of steroids, and to identify the pathogen as the fungus Exserohilum rostratum.  Here and around the world, the CDC rapidly investigates outbreaks - Ebola, avian flu, Rift Valley fever, and SARS, for example, studying them in Biosafety Level 4 facilities.  They develop important public health statistics - for example collecting wide-ranging survey data which allowed a Harvard study group (ignored by Mitt Romney) to estimate that 45,000 Americans die yearly from lack of health insurance.  Sometimes playing detective, sometimes doing basic research, sometimes organizing an emergency response, the CDC is our first and sometimes our only line of defense against an endless variety of threats.

The CDC budget for FY2012 was $11,255,301,000.  Under the President's budget request it was to have received $11.236 billion in FY 2013.  But under the proposed budget and "sequester", which will affect all programs if a budget compromise is not reached, its budget is expected to drop by 12%, making it one of the hardest hit federal research agencies.

The "sequester" and other budget cuts seriously trouble Mitt Romney, who, speaking of the military, said "I oppose the sequestration the president is putting forward ... I also oppose his defense cuts, in addition to the sequestration ... Rather than completing nine ships a year, I would complete 15. I would add more F-22s and add more than 100,000 active duty personnel to our military team."  Romney has previously commented on the number of warships, saying that the U.S. has fewer today than it did in 1916 - a statistic that is both irrelevant and apparently incorrect. Dutifully the House Republicans voted to exempt military spending from the sequester.

According to defense analyst Todd Harrison, it is unclear whether the ships Romney wants are $2 billion destroyers or $0.5 billion Littoral Combat Ships.  But even a $3 billion increase in defense spending (still more than double what is was when George W. Bush took office) is more than 26% of the CDC budget.  The cost of six extra destroyers, $12 billion, is more than the entire CDC budget.  Of course, those are one-time costs, while the CDC expenses are yearly - but the Navy estimated that operating costs for a planned $28 billion fleet of 55 LCS ships would total $84 billion by 2050, and the GAO reported that best practices had not been followed in estimating these costs, which might be substantially higher.  Even the cheaper option of buying six extra LCS ships might amount to a commitment of 5% of every CDC budget until 2050.

Especially here in America, where we have colonized a land left to us almost entirely emptied of its people by infectious diseases, and in an age that still remembers the first speculative reports of AIDS, we must never forget how vulnerable we are, whether to a natural outbreak such as a lethal new strain of avian influenza, or to a man-made pathogen against which no battleship can defend us.  We need to put our highest priority on stopping the real threats that can strike at any time and destroy our civilization, not idle "muscle flexing", ships that will soon become obsolete, built for wars that will probably never happen.  We cannot afford to elect a president whose budget planning amounts to little more than a game of toy soldiers.