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Joe Conason: What Ebola Can Teach Us — About Partisan Politics and Shrinking Budgets

Even if Africa's Ebola emergency never mutates into a global catastrophe, those of us who live in the world's most fortunate country ought to consider what this fearsome virus can teach us. The lessons are quite obvious at this point — and contain implications that are political in the most urgent sense.

The Tea Party mania for shrinking federal budgets and rejecting international organizations — both of which are bedrock policy among the current Republican leadership — is not only bad for our national prestige but also exceptionally dangerous to our health. At the insistence of House leaders, whose answer to every problem has been cutting government and reducing taxes, the United States has steadily starved the budgets of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

The disturbing consequence is that in both this country and the world, humanity lacks the full arsenal of weapons needed to combat Ebola and other potentially devastating outbreaks of tropical disease.

Politicians who identify themselves as "conservative" have failed in their duty to conserve the nation's public health infrastructure, built over decades of hard scientific work with many millions of taxpayer dollars, precisely to cope with an emergency such as Ebola. Instead, they have proposed budgets that would decimate every federal agency that protects us, including the CDC. And the budget deal that they enacted, which depends on sequestration, has led to severe, ham-handed cutbacks in the programs that protect us.

Testifying in Congress a few weeks ago, Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said sequestration has inflicted "a significant impact. It has both in an acute and a chronic, insidious way eroded our ability to respond ... to these emerging threats." He said the cuts have been "particularly damaging" to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he directs — and which is responsible, he noted, for "responding on the dime to an emerging infectious disease threat."

Specifically, sequestration forced the NIH to shave its budget by $1.55 billion, or 5 percent, in 2013, according to Mother Jones magazine. That may not sound like a lot — and it is nothing in terms of closing deficits — but it can be ruinous during an emergency when an agency is suddenly scrambling for every dollar.

The CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases — meaning those that can be transmitted between species — also suffered severe cuts. The center lost $13 million last year, according to Beth Bell, its director, who pleaded with Congress to increase funding sharply.

Sequestration took a similar toll on U.S. spending for international aid — a budget category that American voters tend to assume is roughly 20 times more than the measly 1 percent or so that it actually represents. The Tea Party mentality that wildly exaggerates how much we spend abroad is just as ignorant about the importance and usefulness of that spending.

"If even modest investments had been made to build up a public health infrastructure in West Africa previously, the current Ebola epidemic could have been detected earlier, and it could have been identified and contained," Bell testified. But the sequester cut global health programs by $411 million and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees most of our foreign aid, by $289 million.

The World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations that forms the front line of disease defense in Africa, has likewise suffered massive budget reductions, at the very moment when its services may be most needed. In 2010, the United States paid $280 million toward the WHO's operating costs; by 2013, that contribution was cut by nearly a quarter, to $215 million. But much of that money is earmarked for specific programs, when what the WHO needs in an emergency such as Ebola is unrestricted funding.

Cutting funds to the WHO surely thrilled congressional Republicans, Tea Party leaders and everyone else in this country who expresses irrational hostility toward the U.N. But that was a very perilous way to gratify our country's isolationist faction, which evidently cannot understand that this is one planet — and that the fates of its peoples are inseparably joined.

If we want to improve our security, if we want our children to live in safety, it is long past time to rid Washington of the partisan enemies of strong, competent government and international cooperation. We don't yet know the full cost of their mindless actions, but if we are unlucky, it could be incalculable.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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