Why the Nation's Richest Man Is Looking for Government Money

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

With a $33 billion endowment, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world's largest philanthropy. If you add in donations expected from billionaire Warren Buffett, the charity's assets will grow to twice that size, making them nearly as large as those of oil-rich Kuwait.

But apparently that's not big enough. The foundation also is going after money from American taxpayers. This month it gave a three-year, $3.8 million grant to Families USA, a liberal advocacy group, to coax billions of dollars from the U.S. government to advance the cause of global health.

For 25 years, Families USA has been one of Washington's loudest and most effective cheerleaders for expanding the government's role in health services in the United States. It's currently beating the drum for legislation that would provide health coverage for the uninsured and cut the cost of prescription drugs under Medicare.

But now, thanks to the Gates Foundation grant, Families USA will also shake the capital's money tree for health services around the world. Joe Cerrell, the foundation's director of global health advocacy, said he turned to Families USA to "make the case why government should step up and fund more generously programs that have a direct impact on saving millions of lives."

The idea of leveraging the foundation's largess to scare up more money from elsewhere is relatively new -- four or five years old, Cerrell said. Since 1994, the Gates Foundation and its predecessors have doled out more than $13 billion, much of it to directly purchase vaccines and other medicines to battle diseases that proliferate in impoverished countries. But to meet its goal of eradicating the world's worst scourges, Cerrell said, it needs a multiple of that amount.

So it is looking for assistance from entities with even deeper pockets, including Uncle Sam. "The foundation's resources alone aren't enough to fill that gap," Cerrell said.

Families USA said it will use a variety of tactics familiar to anyone on K Street to get the attention of official Washington. "We'll be putting out research, developing messages, and doing a lot of media and communications outreach in Washington and other parts of the country," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. "Our hope is to convince the public, opinion leaders and policymakers that this is a good thing to do."

Specifically, Pollack said he wants to find ways "to increase and improve funding for research on malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other tropical diseases prevalent in developing countries."

But do not -- I repeat, do not -- call this lobbying. The foundation is barred from doing that. And Families USA said it will not lobby with foundation funds. It will push hard, however, in ways that fall just short of buttonholing lawmakers. It certainly has the resources.

Car Trouble on Capitol Hill

Automakers face plenty of challenges in Congress this year, especially an effort (that could well succeed) to force them to make their cars more fuel-efficient -- an initiative they have managed to resist for more than two decades.

But when it rains it pours, and they now have extra trouble. The Coalition for Automotive Repair Equality (CARE) -- an established alliance of maintenance companies such as Midas, AutoZone and Jiffy Lube -- is pressing for legislation that would compel automakers to offer more information at lower prices to independent repair shops.

"The aftermarket repair industry has not been given all the information it needs to make repairs," said Stephen Sayle of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies, who this month re-upped as a lobbyist for CARE. As cars become more computerized, he said, mechanics require more know-how to fix them and they do not always get it, leaving consumers with no option but to go to dealer-owned garages, which are often more expensive.

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