Monday, October 27, 2008

Republicans Don't Research Before They Speak

On Friday, Gov. Palin gave her first policy address. Her speech focused on the commitment of the McCain-Palin ticket to children with special needs. Among the issues and proposals included in Gov. Palin's speech, were some of her thoughts on autism:
For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information. Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference. That's why we're going to strengthen NIH. We're going to work on long-term cures, and in the short-term, we're going to work on giving these families better information.

Gov. Palin also talked about additional funding for other programs as well, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which Gov. Palin noted has not been fully funded (much like No Child Left Behind, but that's another story...). These are all laudable goals and I commend Gov. Palin for bringing these issues to the forefront of the campaign.

But, remember, Sen. McCain has proposed a spending freeze. So where will these extra funds be found? Gov. Palin's answer: eliminate earmarks.
This is a matter of how we prioritize the money that we spend. We've got a three trillion dollar budget, and Congress spends some 18 billion dollars a year on earmarks for political pet projects. That's more than the shortfall to fully fund the IDEA. And where does a lot of that earmark money end up? It goes to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good -- things like fruit fly research in Paris, France....

So far so good, right? Well, not exactly. You see, one reason that scientists study things like fruit flies is to learn about things that can help humans. For example, according to
Now scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine have shown that a protein called neurexin is required for these nerve cell connections to form and function correctly.

The discovery, made in Drosophila fruit flies may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism.

That's right. Fruit fly research has been useful to help identify genetic risk factors for autism, one of the special needs areas that Gov. Palin wants to help find ways to provide information for and early identification of. Fruit fly research has also helped to "revolutionize" the study of birth defects. So, of all of the earmarks that Gov. Palin could have used as her example (how 'bout that Bridge to Nowhere she supported before she opposed it?), Gov. Palin picked one that actually helps do exactly what she wants.

I don't fault Gov. Palin for wanting to direct more money to help special needs children or their families. And, I think that directing more money at research into things like autism is a terrific idea. I commend Gov. Palin for talking about these issues.

No, my problem is not with the either the policy or the proposal. My problem is the process of thinking about the issue appears to be so shallow. Of all the earmarks to use as an example, why fruit flies? Could it be because that particular earmark just happens to be the first one listed on the Citizens Against Government Waste 2008 "Pig Book" (awards for pork barrel spending)? (Note that Alaska's Sen. Stevens gets the page's third award...) You see, in a competent campaign, before simply writing the speech and choosing the example, someone might have asked the question, "Gee, what is the purpose of this particular earmark and is it good?" But in the worldview of Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin, no earmarks are good (well, Gov. Palin doesn't think earmarks are good now that she's running for Vice President...).

There is no question that some earmarks are bad; maybe most of them are bad. And there is no question that earmarks should be closely examined and voted on, not hidden away in appropriation bills. But there is also no question that some earmarks are actually beneficial. Thus, I'm troubled that whoever wrote Gov. Palin's speech didn't take the time to actually examine the earmark in question before using it as the proverbial poster child for government waste. Maybe that particular earmark was wasteful; I don't know. But the fact that there is a tie between the nature of the research that earmark was for and the very content of the speech and proposal for funding reallocation suggests to me a lack of intellectual curiosity that we should bring to the examination of each and every government policy and program (and isn't that precisely what Sen. Obama has proposed?).

One more point: Sen. Obama's policy statement on disabilities calls for fully funding IDEA and Sen. Obama also has a policy statement on Autism Spectrum Disorders available on his website. So, while it is nice that the McCain campaign is now showing an interest in these issues, they have been featured components of Sen. Obama's platform all along.


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