The Corner

Politics & Policy

CDC Failure and Mission Sprawl

A lot has been written about the  failure of the CDC during this crisis. For instance, Eric Boehm at Reason writes:

The nonsensical war on vaping may have tarnished the CDC’s credibility on the eve of a crisis that would require the public to trust policymakers. And when the coronavirus did hit, the CDC only confirmed that it should not be trusted to make important decisions by forbidding private labs from developing tests for COVID-19. The federal agency’s monopoly on testing supplies produced inaccurate tests that had to be discarded en masse.

The initial testing delay has certainly cost lives. It is also at least partially to blame for the severe quarantine policies that have tipped the American economy into a deep recession — without adequate testing, there was little else for policymakers to do except close the country in the hopes of slowing the disease’s spread.

Between the COVID-19 test fiasco, the often-changed messages about the virus and mask-wearing, and the flop of the CDC’s initiative to create an early-warning system in selected cities, the first order of business once this is over should be to do a full audit followed by serious reforms of an agency that we shouldn’t be trusting blindly.

Guiding those reforms should be the realization that the agency’s failure to perform its core public-health mission of infectious diseases and epidemics is in part due to a severe mission creep and other fashionable distractions. Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has a new study on this. In her conclusion, she writes:

Since 2014, the CDC has continued to dedicate time, energy, and funding toward issues that, while perhaps important, fall outside of its reason for existence. As a result, the CDC has devolved into an agency incapable of adequately addressing the serious threat posed by infectious disease, particularly novel diseases for which there is little information about risk, spread, and treatment.

Chris Edwards has a great piece on this issue too for Cato at Liberty:

Some pundits claim that budget cuts were the problem, but the table below suggests otherwise. The CDC workforce increased 12 percent between 2010 and 2019, based on data in CDC budget submissions here and here.

The largest employment increase was in “Global Health,” a group that monitors foreign outbreaks of infectious disease. The group’s employment jumped from 272 in 2010 to 1,263 in 2019. The CDC says the group “supports global efforts to detect epidemic threats earlier, respond more effectively, and prevent avoidable catastrophes.” The agency should have been ready. . . .

CDC leaders may have been distracted because of mission‐​sprawl. The CDC’s 512‐​page budget submission for 2021 reveals a vast and disparate array of activities. What are occupational safety and injury prevention doing in the government’s infectious disease agency?

The CDC highlights its recent accomplishments on pages 18 to 23. How is CDC Director Redfield supposed to remain alert to emerging epidemics when he is also supposed to manage programs on tiny teeth, colon cancer, opioids, child abuse, diabetes, workers’ compensation, lead‐​based paints, mold in buildings, and lifting heavy objects on construction sites?

Unfortunately, instead of doing the hard work of cutting out programs that have nothing to do with contagious epidemics, Congress is likely to simply throw more money at the agency. The end result will be that the CDC’s attention will continue to be divided, and it will likely fail again the next time around.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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