Congress Says NIH Should Have Spent Money on Ebola Instead of Puppet Shows and Rabbit Massages

Lawmakers say more research funds should have been devoted toward the development of a vaccine for the virus, which has no cure.

New York City might be reeling from its first case of Ebola, but some congressional Republicans see the Ebola crisis as an opportunity to rail against irresponsible government spending.

During a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Friday, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, blasted Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Health and Human Services Department, which includes the National Institutes of Health, for wasting "hard-earned taxpayer money" on experiments to develop more kid-friendly menus and "fruit-and-vegetable puppet shows for preschoolers."

"Are you familiar with the fact that $275,000 on a restaurant intervention to develop a new children's menu was spent of NIH dollars? Are you familiar with that?" Jordan said. "Are you familiar with the fact that $2 million were spent to encourage the elderly to join choirs?"

The congressman was referencing a Washington Free Beacon story from earlier this month that made the case that $39 million of NIH money had been used on seemingly frivolous experiments. Those funds, Jordan believes, should have gone toward Ebola research.

"Some of this money as catalogued by this press account and staff totaling $39 million could have been used to help with treatment for something like Ebola and potentially a vaccine," he said.

Lurie tried to defend her agency, explaining that while she oversees her department, she works in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Defense and Homeland Security departments, and other agencies to approve how money is spent.

"So at some point you have to sign off and say it's OK that $374,000 is used for puppet shows," Jordan continued, "losing the opportunity to use that money to develop a vaccine to deal with something like Ebola."

"I am not in a position to comment on the overall NIH budget," Lurie said.

Lurie added that NIH had made strides on Ebola research, and a vaccine for the virus is in "safety testing" stage. But that was not enough for Jordan.

"That is my point. Might they be a little further than safety testing if you hadn't wasted $39 million on a bunch of other things that taxpayers think are ridiculous?" Jordan asked.

The heated exchange highlighted the budgetary tensions that have emerged between Republicans and Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail since Ebola arrived in the United States. Democrats have cited Republicans and their budget slashing as the reason for slow progress on Ebola readiness. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched Web ads trying to blame Republicans for cutting funding earlier this month after NIH officials suggested budgetary restraints were the reason the health agency had not yet developed an Ebola vaccine. Meanwhile, Republicans are now blasting the Obama administration for its allocation of research funding.

Earlier this week, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., released his annual "Wastebook," a guidebook to irresponsible government spending. In it, Coburn admonished NIH for spending $387,000 on massage-therapy experiments conducted on rabbits and highlighted $533,376 that NIH spent on studying the effects of meditation. He also lambasted NIH for blaming Congress on being short on funds when NIH devotes more than $370,000 to a study on how women react when seeing their pets versus when seeing their children.

NIH Director Francis Collins has said a vaccine for Ebola "probably" would have been developed by now if not for the stagnant funding for the research facility, which has a $30 billion annual budget.

NIH told National Journal that it stands by the spending revealed in the Wastebook. "NIH research addresses the full spectrum of human health across all populations," the agency said in an emailed statement. "The constant battle against illness and disease must include biological, behavioral, and social factors."

The health agency also argued that performing massage therapy on rabbits was necessary because "there is not a lot of existing research on massage and little is known about its biological effects." It also said researchers studied meditation because the deep-breathing practice helps doctors "tailor treatment to better fit the needs of different patients."