Wednesday, August 30, 2006


'No-Brainer' Budget Cut Eludes Most Media Outlets

by Michelle Pilecki

When USA Today reported earlier this month that "Congress appears ready to slash funding for the research and treatment of brain injuries caused by bomb blasts," the media outcry was... nearly non-existent, outside of military newspapers. Few news outlets followed up on proposals to cut in half the $14 million budget for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, which specializes in traumatic brain injury, which center co-founder George Zitnay calls "the signature injury of the war on terrorism." And as far as I can tell, nobody has followed the changing rationales for the cut. On August 8:

Spokespersons for the appropriations committees in both chambers say cuts were due to a tight budget this year. "Honestly, they would have loved to have funded it, but there were just so many priorities," says Jenny Manley, spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee. "They didn't have any flexibility in such a tight fiscal year."

Uh huh. In one of the very few followups, the Washington Times asked for a "clarification":

Here's what a committee staffer told us: "We understand the importance of this program, but additional funding for it was not requested or justified," reads the e-mail. "There were many competing priorities and important programs that also needed funding." And in truth the Pentagon looms large in defense appropriations, so we contacted a Defense Department spokesman for comment. We received no response by deadline. The VA, for its part, referred us back to the Pentagon. We called Walter Reed's public affairs office, but it has no chief spokesman right now, so it referred us to the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. The command also referred us back to a Pentagon spokesman.

The latest story -- and excuse, or lack of same -- comes from the News & Observer in North Carolina:

The Pentagon asked only for $7 million and didn't respond properly when congressional staffers tried to find out whether it needed more money for the program, said Jenny Manley.....

"The Pentagon needs to get behind the things that they want," she said. "Otherwise, we'd just be kind of guessing about what they really need."

Pentagon budget experts did not respond [to the News and Observer] Monday to a request for information on why they had not sought more money.

So how much is actually needed? The N&O reports that Zitnay testified before the Senate appropriations committee in May that the center needed $19 million this year, in part because of the number of head injuries from the wars. Thirty-three members of Congress signed the written request for that amount, he said. And what's the money for? "It's developing new helmets, it's developing drugs we can use to treat memory loss, it's developing innovative rehabilitation strategies."

And on a more personal note, my own local media have embarrassed themselves by missing the larger story in focusing on the local angle. They dutifully picked up the Associated Press story/press release announcing a new affiliate of the Brain Injury Center, the Laurel Highlands Neuro-Rehabilitation Center in Rep. John Murtha's district -- but never alluded to the funding hubbub threatening the Center. Fortunately, one of the local congressmember's staffpeople told the Southern newspaper that a group of Department of Defense, Walter Reed and head injury center officials planned to meet Monday to study whether to make a formal request for more money.

(Hat tip to the stinging nettle via Eschaton.)

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