This was the day Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) has been warning about — and essentially predicted. Back in 2017, when the Trump administration first proposed steep cuts to programs that handle disease outbreaks, Cole said, “I promise you the president is much more likely in his term to have a deal with a pandemic than an act of terrorism. I hope he doesn’t have to deal with either one, but you have to be ready to deal with both.”
Now that the potential pandemic has come, Cole is re-upping his long-standing criticisms of the Trump administration’s posture toward preparedness. And on Tuesday, he offered a little bit of an “I told you so,” even suggesting that the situation might not be as bad if the administration had listened to him.
At a House subcommittee hearing featuring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Cole offered some veiled rebukes of how the administration has worked with people like him on this issue.
“Your requirement is to come and do what you all do, and that’s defend the presidential budget,” Cole told Redfield and the other officials testifying. “But I would just submit for the record that administrations would be a lot better off had they listened to us several years ago in this area, and we would all collectively be better off. And I hope we all learn a lesson from that.”
Cole said that the outbreak of coronavirus is a “sort of vindication of the bipartisan judgment over the last several years that this was really an area we needed to make investments.”
Cole didn’t call out the Trump administration or the president by name, but it was clear that he was referencing the steep cuts the White House has proposed to the CDC and the National Institutes of Health in each of its four proposed budgets thus far. It’s important to note that Congress has fended off these proposed cuts, often increasing funding to the programs anyway in the appropriations bills
In one case, the Trump administration was going to significantly scale back funding for 39 of 49 countries in the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), which seeks to help countries deal with infectious diseases. That effort was later abandoned. Despite this, some Democrats have wrongly stated that the proposed Trump cuts went through.
But Cole said even that situation isn’t good enough. He suggested the administration should have worked more closely with Congress to help prepare for such outbreaks rather than sought big cuts.
“I will just say to my friends — and they are my friends — at [the Office of Management and Budget], and I mean this with no disrespect: When somebody in Congress tells you on a bipartisan basis, we are going to spend money in these areas, you can either help us figure it out, by letting your people work with us — where does the money make the most difference? — or not,” Cole said. “But we’ll do it anyway.”
Even as Cole was appearing at the hearing, though, acting OMB Director Russell Vought testified in a separate hearing that the Trump administration wasn’t changing the proposed cuts in its most recent budget. (Congress has passed an $8 billion supplemental to deal with coronavirus.)
Cole also sounded a very different tune from President Trump when it comes to whether you can just throw money at such problems when they arrive. Trump said two weeks ago that it’s easy to ramp up.
“Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years. And if we have a need, we can get them very quickly,” Trump said. “And rather than spending the money — and I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”
Without mentioning Trump, Cole rebuked that line of thinking.
“These are investments, if they’re not made for years ahead of time, they can’t be sort of parachuted in at the last minute,” he said. “We can’t make the difference without a sustained plan for investing in what each and every one of you do,” he told the health official in front of him.
As noted at the top, Cole is not a newcomer to this. Nearly every year, he has been critical of the proposed cuts. For the fiscal year 2018, the administration proposed a 17 percent cut to the CDC. In 2019, it was 19.4 percent. And this year, despite the budget being introduced after coronavirus began spreading, the administration sought a 9 percent reduction.
Cole in January authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed that credited Congress with making sure we’re prepared for coronavirus — implicit in which was that perhaps this wasn’t to the credit of the administration’s budgeting process.
And on Tuesday, he warned about having to have this conversation again.
“This is not something that’s likely to go away, and I think that’s something again I hope the executive branch realizes over time, regardless of who’s there,” Cole said, adding: “So there’s no sense sending us a budget that cuts things that we’re not going to cut, and doesn’t work with us in areas where we want to make investments.”