HHS official to Congress: I'm totally in charge, but that doesn't mean I can prioritize Ebola prep over puppet shows

In which Dr. Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, uses the playbook of her boss, President Obama, to say she’s totally in charge of everything and has everything under control, but she’s not actually to be held responsible for any missteps.

In this frustrating exchange, Rep. Jim Jordan would like to know, “Hey, what about the $39 million the department wasted on dubious projects that was not put toward more pressing matters like pandemic prep?”

He uses Elizabeth Harrington of The Free Beacon’s reporting on this subject, which revealed $39 million spent on, well, let’s let her tell you:

For instance, the agency has spent $2,873,440 trying to figure out why lesbians are obese, and $466,642 on why fat girls have a tough time getting dates. Another $2,075,611 was spent encouraging old people to join choirs.

Millions have gone to “text message interventions,” including a study where researchers sent texts to drunks at the bar to try to get them to stop drinking. The project received an additional grant this year, for a total of $674,590.

The NIH is also texting older African Americans with HIV ($372,460), HIV and drug users in rural areas ($693,000), HIV smokers ($763,519), pregnant smokers ($380,145), teen moms ($243,839), and meth addicts ($360,113). Text message interventions to try to get obese people to lose weight have cost $2,707,067.

The NIH’s research on obesity has led to spending $2,101,064 on wearable insoles and buttons that can track a person’s weight, and $374,670 to put on fruit and vegetable puppet shows for preschoolers.

A restaurant intervention to develop new children’s menus cost $275,227, and the NIH spent $430,608 for mother-daughter dancing outreach to fight obesity.

Sexual minorities have received a substantial amount from the NIH. The agency has now spent $105,066 following 16 schizophrenic LGBT Canadians around Toronto for a study on their community experiences.

The total for a project on why gay men get syphilis in Peru is now $692,697 after receiving additional $228,425 this year. The NIH is also concerned about postpartum depression in “invisible sexual minority women,” with a study that has cost $718,770.

Millions went to develop “origami condoms,” in male, female, and anal versions. The inventor Danny Resnic, who received $2,466,482 from the NIH, has been accused of massive fraud for using grant money for full-body plastic surgery in Costa Rica and parties at the Playboy mansion.

How transwomen use Facebook is the subject of another NIH study worth $194,788.

The agency has also committed $5 million to “mine and analyze” social media to study American’s attitudes toward drug abuse, and $306,900 to use Twitter for surveillance on depressed people.

Harrington’s report came just as the NIH director was complaining that, “if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this.” Though reporting on the alleged “slide” proves that’s nonsense, it does seem worth asking the NIH, then, about how they prioritized their spending. The answer is they don’t. They don’t have to. And, that’s why giant government bureaucracies that can forcibly take their funding from future generations of voters with basically no function for demanding a return on that money aren’t really so great at figuring out what to cut and what to keep.

Further, the posture of Lurie in this exchange reveals, as it so often does, that government officials are surprised and slightly miffed at the notion that they should be asked to prioritize or justify their spending of other people’s hard-earned cash. Just like their “competence” in fighting Ebola, we should all take it for granted that their doing right by us and shut up about it because we’re not doctors. Jordan doesn’t, at which point we learn that, even though Lurie has asserted in front of Congress that she’s in charge of all the decisions, she actually shouldn’t be held responsible for any of the bad ones. She knows nothing of those.

So, no one’s in charge of prioritizing spending to make sure we’re spending obscene amounts on things that matter, and the people who are in charge can never be held accountable. So, give us more money, they say.