Democrats to block Biden proposal to cut Pentagon pandemic warning system

Biden had proposed a 45 percent cut in his fiscal 2022 budget.

A U.S. soldier administers a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the mass vaccination center of the Universidad de Baja California on June 17, 2021 in Tijuana, Mexico (Francisco Vega/Getty Images)
A U.S. soldier administers a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the mass vaccination center of the Universidad de Baja California on June 17, 2021 in Tijuana, Mexico (Francisco Vega/Getty Images)
Posted July 14, 2021 at 11:26am

The House Appropriations Committee wants to block a Biden administration proposal to reduce spending by nearly half on the U.S. government’s most extensive program for fighting disease outbreaks worldwide. 

The Biological Threat Reduction Program is a Pentagon initiative that provides funds to allies and partner nations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa so they can prevent, detect and respond to disease outbreaks or the use of biological weapons.

The program helps protect U.S. troops stationed abroad from diseases but has a broader benefit: It combats outbreaks that affect everyone. In fact, a lab in Thailand funded by the Pentagon was the first to detect the coronavirus outside of China in January 2020.

President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 defense budget proposed spending $124 million on the threat-reduction program, almost 45 percent less than the current level of $225 million. CQ Roll Call disclosed the proposed cut last month.

Under President Donald Trump, too, the Pentagon had sought to cut spending for the program in both fiscal 2020 and 2021. But Congress kept the money supply steady in both those years, allocating $203 million in fiscal 2020 and $225 million in fiscal 2021.

‘Crucial role’

The repeated efforts to curb spending on the program, even as the intelligence community has warned that pandemics will be more common in the future, has baffled lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. 

House Armed Services leaders told CQ Roll Call last month they could not abide the cut.

The House Appropriations Committee’s funding decision on the program in its draft fiscal 2022 Defense spending bill, which it approved on Tuesday, has not been previously reported.

“The Committee supports the biological threat reduction program and its crucial role in detecting, preparing for, and fighting emerging global diseases, including pandemics, as well as reducing the proliferation of biological weapons and related technologies and expertise,” the committee’s report accompanying its bill said. 

Funding the program at $229 million would “expand the program's cooperation with partner nations to improve biosafety and biosecurity and surveillance of potentially dangerous disease outbreaks,” the panel said, adding that it wants a breakdown from the Pentagon of where the money is going and measures of effectiveness. 

Early warning system

The program is administered by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. 

Defense Department budget documents for fiscal 2022 said the capabilities funded under the biological threats program “counter the threat of theft or diversion of dangerous materials, counter the threat of accidental or intentional pathogen release, and establish an early detection capability for biological threats to contain outbreaks at their source before they can become destabilizing regional events or pose a threat to forces, the U.S. homeland, or partners abroad.” 

Even after that statement of the program’s importance, the same document said the 45 percent cut proposed for fiscal 2022 was needed because of a “one-time” increase from Congress in fiscal 2021. 

But there is nothing to suggest that Congress wanted the increase enacted in fiscal 2021 to be a one-time event. Lawmakers merely restored funding for the program in fiscal 2021 to the level it had been at previously, with a slight raise. 

The same is now poised to happen again this year, unless House and Senate appropriators change course before the final fiscal 2022 measure is enacted.

‘Near-zero probability threats’

In February 2020, when the Trump administration proposed cutting the biological program’s fiscal 2021 budget, among other initiatives, Pentagon officials said they wanted to move the money to nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles to address threats that they said were more pressing.

The program to fight biological perils needed to be scaled back because it aimed at what a Pentagon document in February 2020 called “low to near-zero probability threats.” 

At the time, global coronavirus cases had yet to significantly ramp up. But the U.S. government had nonetheless declared a public health emergency on Jan. 31.