Politics & Policy

Send the General Home

An unnecessary office.

The House of Representatives held a hearing last week that included a number of former surgeon generals who are upset that they were forced to follow the orders of their presidential bosses. “The horror,” they (the gaggle of surgeon generals) collectively said, “That I had to follow the orders of the guy who gave me my job.” In response the equally horrified Democratic-controlled Congress wants to make the job more independent so as not to be constrained with silly things like following orders. “Just imagine,” they (this time the Democrats) collectively said, “the wonders that former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop could have done about smoking or Jocelyn Elders could have done about . . . errrr well you know, if they weren’t constrained by being answerable to anyone.”

While I will watch with amusement as Congress makes recommendations for the position I have a better idea, one that would totally eliminate the possibility of this politically appointed job getting any more political: Abolish the Office of the Surgeon General.

When the position of surgeon general, then called supervising surgeon, was first created in 1781, the appointee actually had something tangible to do. The first supervising surgeon, Dr. John Woodworth, was actually in charge of his own troops. According to the surgeon general’s website, he was in charge of “a mobile force of professionals subject to reassignment to meet the needs of the Public Health Service (PHS).” Since then, the duties of the surgeon general have been demoted so many times he’d barely be a buck private if his title kept up with the changes.

In 1968 President Lyndon Johnson took away the responsibility of overseeing the PHS and made the position of surgeon general into one of a glorified adviser who is answerable to the assistant secretary to the secretary of Health and Human Services. So while the former surgeon generals were complaining of the road blocks they faced with the respective presidents they served, there were, in fact, a few levels of bosses in their way before they reached the Oval Office. Meaning that these levels of government bureaucracy actually protect its citizens by stopping implementation of some of the cockamamie ideas coming from the surgeon general’s office, including drug legalization and universal health care paid for on the backs of U.S. taxpayers.

The position of surgeon general today has become mostly one of a bully pulpit to serve as a federally funded advocate for various health causes (complete with a uniform straight out of a Gilbert and Sullivan play — “I am the very model of a modern surgeon general.”) The authority of the surgeon heneral has been reduced through reorganizations and, we are led to believe, a politicization of the confirmation process. Today, the office has a budget of $3 million and the surgeon general is paid close to $200,000 annually. However they have little or no authority to coordinate the federal government’s public health activities. This coordination is already being done by more than 50 different federal offices that are involved in protecting public health.

I think most people would agree that the surgeon general’s $3 million budget would better serve the taxpayers in a search for cures and treatments for cancer, heart disease, or other life-threatening illnesses. As an example, that $3 million could have been spent on Nevirapine, a retroviral drug that costs less than $4 a dose and has proven to prevent HIV transmission from mother to child with the administration of just two doses. More than 750,000 infants around the world could have been treated and spared from HIV infection. However, the money instead went towards a bootless position that lost its way before most Americans were even born.

So to save the taxpayers’ money, to eliminate yet another unneeded voice in the health-care cacophony, to free up a uniform for the local high school’s Pirates of Penzance performance and to save C-SPAN viewers from any more surgeon-general alumni reunion tours like last week’s hearings — eliminate the Office of Surgeon General today.

Tom McClusky is vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council.

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