Thursday, October 05, 2006

"Combating Autism Act" Caught in Political Wrangling

This is a photo of Joe Barton. A Republican member of Congress from Ennis, Texas, Barton chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. You can read his official biography and learn that as a former oil industry consultant he cares a lot about making sure energy supplies are high and prices are low. His agenda also includes protecting television viewers from what he considers indecent programs and cutting capital gains taxes, among other priorities. What is not on his agenda is helping people with autism.

Barton has this distinction: He's the House member who is blocking the Combating Autism Act from reaching the House floor for a vote when, according to advocates for the bill, a majority of House members now supports its passage. That is a big deal because the Senate in August passed its version of the bill which would provide about $900 million for autism research and services over the next five years. (You can read background about the legislation, and see links to the bill here.)

There are some things that parents and advocates can try to do about this, but first it's important to mention this morning's American Morning show on CNN, during which Barton appeared with Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a co-sponsor of the Combating Autism Act, to discuss the legislative holdup. (You can see a full transcript of today's show here.)

There's not going to be an autism bill this year, Barton said, because he wants to see Congress reform the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He has pushed such a bill through the House and now wants to see the Senate pass it, too. When that happens, he says, he will consider having the House look at the autism bill. Barton argued on CNN that his NIH reform bill would make it possible to focus more on autism -- a position rejected by Santorum, a fellow Republican. A soundbite from Barton:

"We think that the NIH reform package puts in motion the accounting principles, the transparency principles, all the various things to make it possible to focus more on autism. Again, we're not anti-autism. But the senator's legislation has a specific authorization level, which no one outside of the autistic community supports that."

(Reading Barton's remarks, remember that the Senate passed the bill unanimously, and, as of tonight, there are 228 of 435 representatives who said they will support it. Those numbers have to include people who are "outside the autistic community.") For the record, Santorum said that the Combating Autism Act was needed to research the causes of the disorder, specifically environmental causes.

What to do now? The people at, a coalition of 21 advocacy, support and research groups, has a list of Congressional leaders to contact and how to contact them. After registering your objection with Joe Barton, you can contact his political bosses, Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois. Tell them they can talk to you about something other than a House page sex scandal. Tell them to press Barton to put the autism bill on the House agenda when the House reconvenes after next month's election.

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