The time has come for Congressional oversight hearings focused on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to influence state and local laws, possibly in violation of federal anti-lobbying provisions.
Examples of the questionable grants include:
• A $2.2 million grant to the California Department of Public Health used to “advance policy changes to limit the availability” of soda in schools, among other programs.
• More than $12 million in grants to groups in King County, Wash., to influence policy, including an effort to “change zoning policies to locate fast food retailers farther from … schools.”
It is important here to distinguish between arguments about the merits of the CDC’s health policy goals (soda taxes, smoking bans, etc.) and questions about the legality of how the agency hands out grants.
Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General Daniel Levinson wrote in late June that his office was “concerned” that CDC Communities Putting Prevention to Work grants may have been used for “inappropriate lobbying activities.” This comes on the heels of similar questions recently raised by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
In a May 1 letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Collins expressed concern that the CDC appears to have used “federal funds in attempts to change state and local policies and laws,” despite the fact that “since 2002, federal law has prohibited the use of federal funds, ‘directly or indirectly ... to influence, in any manner ... an official of any government,’ whether it be federal, state, or local, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy or appropriation.”
But despite the allegations of repeated violations of various anti-lobbying laws, the CDC essentially says it’s all much ado about nothing. According to the CDC, the inspector general’s findings don’t rise to the level of a systematic illegality but rather are based simply on overly broad financial reporting by grant recipients.
The CDC says any alleged illegal lobbying by grant recipients were not actual instances of lobbying, or if they were, they were funded by the grantees themselves from other funds, not from CDC grants. And, the CDC adds, it always tells grant recipients to comply with federal laws against using the funds for “lobbying.”
This might be a plausible excuse, if only the grants weren’t, by the CDC’s own admission, actually handed out for the very purpose of changing local laws.
When called out on the matter in a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in March, Sebelius defended the lobbying efforts, creatively arguing that at the time the grants were made, the law permitted the use of federal tax dollars to lobby local governments and the ban on lobbying applied only at the federal level.
Congress has since removed any doubt about the matter. In addition to the 2002 law cited by Collins, the statute now governing the federal budget also explicitly bans the use of federal taxpayer dollars for lobbying any level of government, including cities and states. Now there should be no wiggle room.