Dems fuel uproar over ‘banned’ CDC words

Dems fuel uproar over ‘banned’ CDC words
© Greg Nash

Democrats in the House and Senate are demanding answers from the Trump administration after a report that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was banned from using some words and phrases in official documents.

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that senior CDC officials in charge of the budget told the agency’s policy analysts of a list of words they shouldn’t use in documents they are preparing for next year’s budget. The banned terms included “fetus,” “transgender” and “science-based.”

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Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: HHS diverts funds to pay for detaining migrant children | Health officials defend transfers | Lawmakers consider easing drug company costs in opioids deal Trump health official defends funding shifts to pay for detained migrant children Judiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh MORE (D-Wash.) and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneNew Trump rule would weaken Obama methane pollution standards FCC watchdog clears chairman of 'favoritism' allegations over Sinclair deal GAO report blasts Trump's handling of ObamaCare MORE (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Eric Hargan, acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), stating that the policy “sends a clear message that the Trump Administration is yet again prioritizing ideology over science.”

The two lawmakers outlined numerous instances of what they said is the administration’s questionable record on promoting science.

For example, the Trump administration abruptly cut short grant programs aimed at ending teen pregnancy with little explanation. And in September, HHS issued a draft strategic plan for fiscal years 2018–2022 that defined life as beginning at conception, a major departure from Obama-era policies.

CDC officials said there are no bans and what transpired was a misunderstanding of a routine discussion on budgeting.

“I understand that confusion arose from a staff-level discussion at a routine meeting about how to present CDC’s budget,” CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald said in a statement Monday. “It was never intended as overall guidance for how we describe and conduct CDC’s work.”

Fitzgerald told CDC staff over the weekend that the agency is committed to its science- and evidence-based mission.

HHS also pushed back on suggestions that it has “banned, prohibited or forbidden” certain words.

“Recent media reports appear to be based on confusion that arose when employees misconstrued guidelines provided during routine discussions on the annual budget process,” HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd said in an emailed statement to The Hill.

“It was clearly stated to those involved in the discussions that the science should always drive the narrative,” Lloyd continued. “Any suggestion otherwise is simply not true.”

But following recent budget proposals from the Trump administration, as well as the agency’s record on controversial issues like abortion, teen pregnancy and LGBTQ issues, Democrats said they weren’t convinced.

“Suggesting that certain words not be used for political purposes undermines public trust in our institutions and is completely improper,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroOvernight Health Care: HHS diverts funds to pay for detaining migrant children | Health officials defend transfers | Lawmakers consider easing drug company costs in opioids deal Congress reaches deal to fund government through Dec. 7, preventing shutdown Dems demand Sessions restore asylum for victims of violence MORE (Conn.), the top Democrat on a House Appropriations subcommittee that deals with HHS. 

Federal agencies are prepping the budget documents for fiscal 2019 and sending them to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has the ultimate say on what’s included in Trump’s request. The administration is expected to release its budget request in February.

A former CDC employee told The Hill that they’d been told what reportedly occurred at Thursday’s staff-level meeting was strictly for documents related to the budget.

This means scientific reports would continue to use words such as “transgender,”  “evidence-based” and “fetus.”

“It’s almost like desperate measures for desperate times,” the former employee said. “You’re facing huge budget cuts for really important programs.”

Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeConservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Overnight Health Care: House GOP blocks Trump-backed drug pricing provision | Maryland sues to protect ObamaCare | Insurers offer help to hurricane-impacted areas House GOP blocks Trump-supported drug pricing provision from spending bill MORE (R-Okla.), a top House appropriator, said he doesn't think HHS officials were trying to censor anyone. 

"If we found anything like that I would be very disturbed — just the initial indications are not something that suggest anybody is trying to limit the language people can use," Cole said, though he added that he thinks the officials were trying to avoid using certain language in a mistaken effort to placate Republicans in power.

"So far it looks to me silly, not sinister," Cole said. "To me it’s a waste of time, it’s not something they ought to be doing, they shouldn’t have to worry about it."

Science and research advocacy groups said even if there were no explicit bans, the fact that career CDC staff may have been told to tailor their language to streamline the budget process for next year raises concerns about self-censorship.

Joanne Carney, director of the office of government relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said even if there was no explicit ban on words, she was worried about the long-term effects.

“We are concerned this may set a precedent where civil servants” may pause and refrain from using certain language, she said. 

Carney noted that there have been instances in years past where negative congressional reaction to research for sexual behavior and drug abuse has caused researchers to self-censor in their funding proposals.

In a letter to OMB Director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyProtect the Military Lending Act On The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills Warren suggests Mulvaney broke law by speaking to GOP donors MORE, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health said “the reported policy flatly contravenes the mission of the agency, grossly violates the agency’s pledge to the American people, and represents an appalling act of censorship.”

- This story was corrected on Dec. 19 to reflect Rep. Rosa DeLauro's subcommittee position.