WASHINGTON -- Is saving someone you know from cancer worth $16 to you? Congress doesn't seem to think so.
Despite the heavy toll cancer inflicts on our nation each year, the House of Representatives' pending budget resolution would cut $40 million from the budget of the National Cancer Institute.
Finding a cure for cancer should be a top concern of Congress. Consider for a moment the devastating impact cancer has on our country: Cancer killed more than half a million Americans last year; it is this country's second-leading cause of death.
The federal government's National Cancer Institute has led the fight to cure cancer through the funding and translation of world-class medical research. Last year, each American contributed about $16 through federal income taxes to the NCI to fund some of country's top scientists as they develop new treatments and cures for cancer.
Is $16 per American too much? The House's pending budget resolution, with its $40 million in cuts to the NCI's budget, suggests that many in the House think that's the case.
Congress says it has to make these kinds of difficult program cuts because it simply doesn't have the money. But let's look at the facts. The president's proposed $2.7 trillion federal budget for 2007 works out to about $9,000 per American. The proposed cuts to the NCI budget amount to approximately 20 cents per American. Clearly, this is a story about priorities, not dollars and cents.
How important is the NCI's research? The numbers tell the story. This year, about 1.5 million of us will be told we have cancer. More than half a million of us will die of it. This toll will be felt among the young and old alike. More Americans ages 20 to 40 will be killed by cancer than by any other type of disease.
And yet we see reason for hope. Our research is paying off; the nation's "war on cancer" - fitfully waged over the past 35 years - is finally yielding dramatic signs of success. Cancer death rates fell by 10 percent from 1991 to 2002, saving as many as 321,000 lives. In fact, this past year was the first time in history that the number of Americans who died of cancer declined.
Ready for more good news? This first absolute decline in American deaths from cancer is all the more remarkable because it means our progress has been more than fast enough to offset a growing and aging American population - two factors that push the number of new cancer diagnoses upward.
There's also sound reason to think we're about to make major breakthroughs that could rapidly accelerate these trends. Our substantial investments in sequencing the human genome are producing dramatic advances in our understanding of how cancers grow - and how we might better reverse their spread. These new insights are beginning to be translated into profoundly more powerful therapies and diagnostics. If anything, now is the time to redouble our efforts, not scale them back.
The money for cancer research is out there; the real issue is one of legislative priorities. Let's be clear about what the House will be telling us if it moves ahead with cutting $40 million from the NCI's budget. It will be asserting that every dollar remaining in the federal budget is being used for something more important. But what are those "more important" priorities?
We get an indication by looking at the House's priorities in fiscal year 2006. Citizens Against Government Waste reports that Congress spent nearly $30 billion on pork projects, or about $100 per American.
So, what did your $100 toward pork buy you in place of cancer research? Here is a sampling of the programs evidently judged more important than NCI funding:
The Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash.
The Arctic Winter Games in Alaska.
The Sparta Teapot Museum in Sparta, N.C.
The International Fund for Ireland, including funding for a World Toilet Summit.
Sidewalk enhancements in Buckhannon, W.Va.
Such lists are often dismissed with weary cynicism. But in the context of pending cuts to the NCI, we see them for what they are - indisputable evidence that Washington's decision-making process is badly broken.
Congress must learn to place people ahead of pork. Almost every American family has suffered cancer's terrible pain. With potential victory finally within our sights, now is most certainly not the time to abandon our commitment to beating cancer, once and for all.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is founder of the Center for Health Transformation. Robert Egge is a project director at the center. Their e-mail addresses are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.