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 — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Dems blast rulemaking on family planning program | Facebook may remove anti-vaccine content | Medicare proposes coverage for new cancer treatment Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators seek answers on surprise medical bills | Red states move to limit Medicaid expansion | Two drug companies agree to testify Senate Dems block Sasse measure meant to respond to Virginia bill MORE (D-Wash.) and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneHigh stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Lawmakers pay tribute to John Dingell's legacy on health care | White House denies officials are sabotaging ObamaCare | FDA wants meeting with Juul, Altria execs on youth vaping Hillicon Valley: Dems ready to subpoena Trump Tower meeting phone records | Dems, Whitaker in standoff over testimony | Bezos accuses National Enquirer of 'extortion' | Amazon offers rules for facial recognition | Apple releases FaceTime fix 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 DeLauroPush for paid family leave heats up ahead of 2020 Gillibrand offers to 'sit down' with Trump to discuss family leave Key lawmaker says moment is now for legislation benefiting women 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 ColeGOP dismisses polls showing losing battle on shutdown Bottom Line Dems hit GOP on health care with additional ObamaCare lawsuit vote 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 MulvaneyHigh stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks Trump declares national emergency at border Puerto Rico governor threatens legal action over national emergency declaration: 'See you in court' 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.