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.
So the CDC has shifted its defense, claiming that the law forbids only an extremely narrow definition of “lobbying” and that it is still permitted to hand out federal money to influence local government policies.
An HHS official responded to Collins’ allegations, pointing out that CDC policy forbids the use of grants for “any activity designed to influence action in regard to a particular piece of pending legislation.” In doing so, it carved out for itself loopholes so big that truckloads of taxpayer-funded lobbyists can drive through with impunity.
This CDC policy veers drastically from federal law by permitting lobbying in regard to a general policy approach, such as one in favor of soda taxes, so long as it didn’t favor a particular policy option, such as a specific tax rate.
In addition, the CDC has actually argued that grants may be used permissibly for lobbying in favor of specific legislation that is not yet pending or formally introduced to a legislature. Only last month, after Collins’ scrutiny, did the CDC expand its policy limiting lobbying to “proposed” legislation.
These excuses don’t pass the smell test.
The CDC’s outlandish and evolving defenses of the abuse of federal spending should offend even those who favor the policies that the CDC is openly advocating at the local level.
Hearings are urgently needed because the types of grants that have raised all this controversy were only part of the ramp-up in spending. The CDC is set to expand this type of program, with an annual $2 billion in Community Transformation Grants by 2015, funded through the 2010 health care law.
The CDC and the HHS have already signaled their intention to continue using the funds to change laws, despite repeated and clear Congressional intent not to permit it. Without focused oversight, there is no reason to expect that the administration will end these abusive practices.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.