Washington Markup

Will Politics Trump Science and Undermine Civil Liberties in Spending “Deal”?

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 9:40am

Leading congressional negotiators are apparently putting the finishing touches on a year-end spending deal, which would fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year (in September 2012). Because of the difficulty in getting spending agreements through a bitterly divided Congress, representatives and senators tasked with hammering out the framework of a deal have added numerous “sweeteners” to secure the votes of members who would otherwise be inclined to vote no. What might at first be dismissed as simply politics and legislative “sausage making” as usual has the potential to do real harm to civil liberties.

Many of the sweeteners that have been discussed as being on the table are attacks on civil liberties. One proposal would reinstate the federal ban on funding for syringe services programs. These programs are a proven, life-saving approach to preventing transmission of HIV and viral hepatitis, two of the major infectious disease threats facing our nation. Dozens of national, state and local organizations, including the ACLU, recently wrote to President Obama and leading members of Congress on this issue, writing:

Numerous scientific studies, including several studies funded by the federal government, have established that syringe services programs, when implemented as part of a comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention strategy, are an effective HIV prevention intervention and do not promote drug use.

Despite the proven benefits of syringe services programs in preventing the transmission of infectious disease, some in Congress would rather put politics ahead of science and public health.

Ironically, while federal funds for scientifically proven syringe services programs could be eliminated in the spending deal, ineffective programs that actually endanger the health of teenagers could end up a big winner.

The spending deal may include language that would actually allow dedicated funding for ineffective and harmful abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. The evidence against these programs is overwhelming. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs censor vital health care information and increase risk-taking behavior; reinforce gender stereotypes and stigmatize gay and lesbian teens; and use taxpayer dollars to promote religion.

While it’s certainly important for Congress to make sure that the federal government is funded and able to serve the American people, it should not allow a spending bill to be turned into battering ram against science and civil liberties.

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