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CDC Turns to Private Aid to Stay Healthy

The agency's homeland security needs are growing, but its budget under Bush is not.

April 25, 2003|Peter G. Gosselin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dedicated its new emergency operations center this month, it bore the name of a surprising benefactor -- Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus.

The reason: Almost two years into a massive war on terrorism, having faced one public health threat in the anthrax attacks of 2001 and facing another in a contagious, pneumonia-like disease called SARS, the federal government was unable to equip the center in a timely fashion on its own.

So it had to turn to a private donor for nearly $4 million.

"The government should have been able to put that together for itself," said Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the CDC. "The administration came in this year with a budget proposal that's essentially an abandonment" of the CDC, he said.

The Bush administration defends its record on the CDC and, more generally, on shielding Americans from a new generation of threats. White House officials said spending on homeland security has nearly tripled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We can't eliminate all of the dangers that face the nation," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was in Los Angeles on Thursday as part of a two-day swing through California for meetings with state and local officials, but "we have made great strides in enhancing the security of America."

But although the administration has spent billions of dollars bolstering airport security and maintaining patrols over major cities, critics say it has stinted on other critical items -- from protecting port facilities to replacing outmoded police and fire radios. They say it has done so in order to continue pushing its tax cuts.

"They are so desperate to preserve their budget-busting tax cuts that they are looking for places to shortchange," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Ridge and other senior officials justify the administration's reluctance to rush into new spending in some areas as guarding against waste.

White House and congressional budget documents suggest that the administration plans to shave overall homeland security spending by $2 billion next fiscal year, a reduction that White House spokesmen justify as reflecting the lower risks to Americans that has come with the quick, U.S.-led victory over Iraq.

In addition, Ridge and others repeatedly have said that the responsibility -- and costs -- of improving security are not just Washington's, but must be shared by states, municipalities and the private sector.

Critics note that most state and local governments are so cash-strapped they can't afford new tasks.

And many companies are so uncertain about the future that they won't make profit-raising investments, much less security-boosting ones.

As a result, critics say, the Bush administration -- by its own measures -- has left gaping holes in America's home-front defenses. In the 19 months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they say, the administration has, among other things:

* Identified 123 chemical plants where a "worst case" terrorist attack could kill 1 million people or more -- but failed to prevent chemical industry lobbying from killing a tough bill to bolster plant security. It then negotiated a compromise that would require plants to improve security but provide few ways to enforce the requirement.

* Repeatedly warned that the nation's ports, including those of Long Beach and Los Angeles, could be used to import bombs -- but devoted almost no new money to improve the security of port facilities or to underwrite its own high-profile program to inspect U.S.-bound cargo as it is being loaded in foreign ports.

* Promised $3.5 billion in new funds this fiscal year for police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel who are the "first responders" in case of terrorist attack -- but by its own reckoning will deliver only about half that much.

The problems that dog the Bush team's broader homeland security efforts appear in sharp focus at the CDC, the nation's disease-control agency. The story behind the CDC's new emergency operations center illustrates what critics say is becoming a recurring theme with the White House -- that of issuing alarms about new home-front threats, then often moving only grudgingly to protect against them.

Despite rising threats of epidemics and bioterrorism, President Bush has not sought to increase the CDC's budget since taking office, although he has agreed to accept additional sums under pressure from congressional Republicans and Democrats. (Since Sept. 11, Bush has asked for and received extra money to improve the nation's readiness to handle a bioterrorism attack, although most of that is earmarked for states.)

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