Skip the balloons, fund medical research

Girl's fight for cancer research lives
Girl's fight for cancer research lives

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Girl's fight for cancer research lives 04:27

Story highlights

  • For the first time since 1974, US taxpayer money did not fund the two major party conventions
  • Eric Cantor: Those funds were instead put toward medical research of childhood diseases

Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor represented Virginia's 7th District in Congress. Cantor currently serves as Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Moelis & Company. You can follow him on Twitter @EricCantor. All views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Aside from the candidates themselves, the 2016 Republican and Democratic Conventions felt oddly familiar. Both parties had elaborate stages and podiums, slick video introductions, recognized musicians, goodies for their guests and no shortage of balloons.

And yet, Americans might be surprised to learn that this was the first time since 1974 that their tax dollars weren't used to pay for these conventions.
    Eric Cantor
    Two years ago, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act. This bill terminated taxpayer funding for the production of the major party conventions and redirected it toward a more worthy cause: researching cures for children's diseases. (The one exception: The federal government will continue to fund security costs at the two conventions, as it has since the 2001 terrorist attacks.)
    In 2012, the U.S. government spent just over $18 million of our tax dollars on each of the party conventions. In 2008, expenses for the four-day soirees included more than $6 million in salaries, $1.6 million for catering, $350,000 for music, films, and photography and $20,000 for gift bags and trinkets. However, federal funding didn't cover the entire cost of those or prior conventions. The two parties and the local host committees raised millions in additional private funds to stage the events.
    Beginning in 2015, the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act redirected those tax dollars to a new "10 Year Pediatric Research Fund." Over the next decade, $126 million will be provided through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research treatments and cures for childhood diseases.
    Girl fights for cancer research bill
    Girl fights for cancer research bill

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    Girl fights for cancer research bill 03:14
    In its first full year of funding, the pediatric research initiative provided $12.6 million in grants focused on researching the genetic basis of certain structural birth defects and childhood cancers. For example, researchers at the University of Utah have now begun looking into the genetic predisposition for Ewing sarcoma, a bone cancer that afflicts approximately 200 children and young adults in the U.S. each year. Tragically, the survival rate after the cancer has spread is only 30 percent.
    And scientists at Harvard Medical School are investigating the genetic causes for congenital heart defects, which afflict approximately 35,000 newborns each year.
    The hope with these and the other Kids First research initiatives is that a better understanding of the mechanics of a disease will result in effective new treatment therapies. Whatever the outcome, research is clearly a better investment of taxpayers' money than gift bags, catered food and custom podiums for political conventions, which is perhaps why the legislative proposal was initially called the "Kids First Research Act."
    With tools 'children can face down disese'
    With tools 'children can face down disese'

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    With tools 'children can face down disese' 03:13
    Prior to the bill's passage, the name of the bill was changed to the "Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act." Gabriella, who lived in Leesburg, Virginia, was nine years old when she was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive and difficult-to-treat form of brain cancer. Despite her prognosis, she quickly became a celebrated activist and fundraiser on behalf of fighting childhood cancer.
    With her parents Gabriella helped found the Smashing Walnuts Foundation, named after the walnut-sized tumor that the doctors informed her she had. During the 11 months before she succumbed to the cancer, she helped raised nearly $300,000 for research.
    Gabriella wasn't just inspiring, though. She was frank and honest in a way that only children can be. Talking about an ongoing political debate over funding for medical research, she told an interviewer two weeks before her death, "Talking is bull#!*t. We need action." She then giggled, as children sometimes do after saying a bad word.
    Watching that video convinced me that we had to get the Kids First bill, which had been languishing in Congress, enacted. My colleagues -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- were similarly convinced. Five months and eight days after her death, Obama signed the bill into law.
    In describing her fight against cancer, Gabriella once said, "If I go, if I lose my battle, then I want other people to carry on with the war. They're going to win this war."
    Though she wasn't specifically addressing convention spending, her sentiment still holds true. Taking money away from political party conventions and redirecting it to pediatric medical research is common sense.
    But if we are going to win the war against childhood cancer and other debilitating diseases, we need a lot more of this common sense when it comes to federal budget priorities.
    This requires going through the budget with a fine-tooth comb. For example, did you know the federal government spent $172.8 million this year to promote the sale of U.S. agriculture products abroad -- including over $9 million to promote the sale of wine, beer and distilled spirits? I strongly support American exports, but if it is a choice between cancer research for kids and advertising for wineries, it is an easy call.
    Here is some good news -- the Senate's appropriations bill to fund medical research for next year includes a $2 billion boost for the NIH, partially funded by ending 18 other programs deemed lower priorities. For the sake of children like Gabriella, let's hope Congress continues to reorient around the need for increased spending on medical research.