Right Wing Group Goes Too Far

Allies shun Traditional Values Coalition for its tactics on HIV

In an apparent miscue, a list of federal research grants deemed objectionable by the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) has handed the Democrats a political issue that they are using to charge that the Bush administration is driven by “scientific McCarthyism.”

The list of roughly 260 grants made by the National Institutes of Health, many of them doing research on HIV prevention, was given to Republican staffers in advance of an October 2 budget hearing on Capitol Hill. After Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the Institutes’ director, was questioned about the “medical benefit” of some of the studies, NIH staffers requested a copy of the list and began contacting the researchers.

“The sole purpose there was to notify them that your name has appeared on this list that was discussed at a public hearing,” said John Burklow, an agency spokesperson.

The list and the calls had a large number of grant recipients on edge after Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Penn.) and Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) had offered an amendment to a budget bill in July that would have prevented NIH from funding five grants they said were wasteful or offensive. The amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives by a vote of 212 to 210, but concerns persisted among researchers and social service agencies.

The list has all the hallmarks of a TVC effort––it is baldly political, and also amateurish. It included several dozen grants that have expired, some as long as two years ago. At least three researchers on the list are dead. The HIV prevention research under attack is work that, in NIH’s view, is easily defended.

“We stand behind our peer review process for funding research which is well established and world renowned,” Burklow said.

U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, pounced on the list and in an October 27 letter to Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, demanded an investigation into who at NIH might have assisted the right wing group in compiling the list.

“Over the last several months, I have been critical of a pattern of actions in the Bush administration that interfere with science or scientists in order to further a political or ideological agenda,” Waxman wrote. “The ‘hit list’ of scientists and research grants indicates that this dangerous pattern continues. I urge you to rectify this situation immediately.”

TVC, which did not respond to calls seeking comment, has long been among the most shrill and least competent organizations that populate America’s right wing. In July, the group enraged other right wing groups and members of Congress when it opposed a bill that would allow Americans to import less expensive drugs from Canada.

With money and assistance from the pharmaceutical industry, TVC launched a direct mail campaign aimed at some conservative members of Congress. The group wrote to their constituents and charged the drug importation bill would allow Americans to get RU-486, an abortion pill.

The mailing was bad enough, but when the Washington Post reported it was backed by drug industry lobbyists and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group, TVC was isolated.

Some conservative groups will no longer work with TVC and, in a July 17 letter, Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA) told Lou Sheldon and Andrea Lafferty Sheldon, the TVC leaders, that they were banned for one year from meetings and contact with the Values Action Team, a caucus of conservative House Republicans that was formed in 1998.

“You should know that this matter has been discussed widely among pro-life members of Congress and not one member has argued that this is the wrong course of action,” Pitts wrote. “In fact a very large number of members have demanded that this action be taken based both on your recent actions and on your organization’s overall reputation.”

Some Republicans and right wing groups have in the recent past seized on NIH grants that they see as wasteful or frivolous.

The Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives, has a list of ten NIH grants it opposes and Citizens Against Government Waste, a right wing group, has a list of five. A number of conservative Republicans and groups have published editorials objecting to these studies. TVC’s bungling is unlikely to defuse this political issue.

“I think it’s irrelevant,” said a lobbyist knowledgeable on the issue.

The Republicans have other lists of targets and any grants on them could become an issue.

“I think that the fact that there is a list of 260 grants gives you an idea of how many could possibly come up,” the lobbyist said.

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