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The CDC isn’t favoring Trump states with coronavirus spending

Sometimes presidents shift money toward ‘their’ voters. This is different.

- March 19, 2020

This month Congress and the president enacted a bill to appropriate $8.3 billion in emergency funding to various federal agencies to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The measure allocates about $2 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including $950 million for grants to states.

Often, Congress writes a formula telling agencies exactly how to spend the money. Other times, it lets agencies allocate the money as it sees fit. This time, Congress gave the CDC funding with no strings attached, requiring only “that the Director of [the CDC make] awards through … grant or cooperative agreement mechanisms.” The CDC immediately sprang into action, allocating more than $560 million in grants to the states by March 11.

A quick peek at the data suggests that the CDC played it straight, awarding money strictly according to state population — without putting a thumb on the scale for states electorally important to the president. Here’s why.

Sometimes presidents spend money in ways that favor “their” voters. Sometimes they don’t.

Political scientists Douglas L. Kriner and Andrew Reeves argue in their 2015 book, “The Particularistic President,” that when the executive branch implements federal programs, the president typically engages in pork-barrel behavior just like Congress. For example, the George H.W. Bush administration closed military bases in Democratic districts after the Cold War; presidents consistently declare states of disaster more often in states and districts electorally important to the president’s party; and on average more grant funding goes to states important to the president’s party and reelection.

Could that model explain how the CDC distributed coronavirus funding? After all, President Trump appointed the CDC director, Robert R. Redfield, who occupies a position that does not require Senate confirmation.

But the bulk of the CDC’s staff is made up of technically sophisticated professionals embedded in professional norms and culture from the public health and epidemiology communities. That suggests that a model offered by two other political scientists, Gary J. Miller and Andrew B. Whitford, might fit the CDC better. They argue in their 2016 book, “Above Politics,” that professionalized bureaucracies — like the CDC — are able to resist the political passions of elected officials. Instead, they provide public goods and regulation efficiently.

Organizational structures and locations might also insulate bureaucrats from presidential pressure. Political scientist David Lewis showed that agencies with a large proportion of employees outside Washington, D.C., report substantially less presidential influence than those with more employees in D.C. The CDC ranks among the agencies with the fewest employees in the District, implying less opportunity for presidential meddling with its operations.

There’s no sign the CDC is favoring “Trump states”

To determine how the CDC allocated its new funding from the coronavirus spending bill, I collected CDC data on how much money it had sent to each state in the March 11 disbursement. I then matched the state data with Trump’s popular vote share in each state in the 2016 general election and each state’s U.S. Census Bureau-estimated 2019 population.

I find no evidence that the CDC preferred those states most important to Trump’s reelection. Instead, the CDC — as a collection of technically sophisticated professionals — allocated money largely based on state population.

As you can see in the first figure below, Trump’s popular vote share in a state from the 2016 general election bears no relationship with how much funding the state received. States like Massachusetts (which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton) and Arkansas (which overwhelmingly supported Trump) for example, received almost identical funding per person. Instead, as you can see in the second figure, the CDC allocated funding largely according to population, a criterion that likely correlates with a state’s need.

Figure: Nicholas G. Napolio
Figure: Nicholas G. Napolio
Figure: Nicholas G. Napolio
Figure: Nicholas G. Napolio

Ideally, we would be able to compare funding from the CDC with the number of confirmed cases by state, another measure of need. But at the time the CDC sent money to the states, only about 21,000 people (0.006 percent of the U.S. population) had been tested either by the CDC or public health labs.

As testing grows and if Congress allocates more funding to the states, we can check back to see whether the CDC and other agencies continue to target funding based on population and confirmed cases or if they begin to distribute money in ways that might further the president’s interests.

What does that tell us?

This data can’t tell us whether the CDC’s response to the coronavirus is enough to combat the pandemic. In fact, early mistakes in producing and handling CDC test kits put testing rates in the United States far behind those of other countries.

Nor can we tell whether the CDC is making the right decision in allocating funding by population. Instead, it seems the CDC might be aiming to avoid favoritism toward states important to the president’s reelection coalition. Nor can the analysis reveal whether agencies always overcome political pressures from elected officials.

What we can conclude is that under certain conditions, expert and professional bureaucracies can manage to further the country’s broad social welfare — and that so far, the CDC has done that in responding to this pandemic.

Nicholas G. Napolio (@NicholasNapolio) is a graduate student in political science at the University of Southern California.