Dying of an inoperable brain tumor, 10-year-old Gabriella Miller told Washington to shove it. “Stop talking and start doing,” she said in a video while lobbying Congress for pediatric disease research money. With a mischievous smile and balled fists, Gabriella giggled: “Talking’s bullshit. We need actions.”
Congress listened, but could it act in time to save her?
In a brief respite from Washington gridlock, President Obama today is signing the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, a $126 million increase in pediatric medical research over the next decade. The bill was shepherded through Congress by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican inspired by Gabriella’s story when he saw one of her YouTube pitches late last year.
It was embraced in the Senate by two Democrats, fellow Virginians Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and sent to the White House for President Obama’s signature Thursday. Gabriella grew up in Leesburg, Va. In the House, Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., sponsored the bill in honor of his son, who has Fragile X syndrome.
“Parents with kids with a disease or disorder don’t care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat,” Cantor told me by telephone, “they just want their kids to get better.”
Gabriella’s law is more of an aberration than a trend in Congress, a deeply unpopular institution gripped by polarization, fiscal austerity and inaction. It took a remarkable young life to summon a few pages of can-do bipartisanship.
“This is what we all should be about,” Cantor said. “Both sides should be about bettering the lives of kids.”
Cantor’s Democratic partner in the House was Rep. Peter Welch, a liberal from Vermont. “We’re making an important investment in life-saving research which we hope will lead to long overdue cures,” Welch said in a statement. “We’re also demonstrating that bipartisan progress is possible even in this deeply divided Congress.”
The bill terminates funding from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund for political party conventions, according to Cantor’s office, and shifts the savings to research into pediatric diseases and disorders. The $12.6 million per year is a pittance compared to the severity of the problem and the size of the U.S. budget, which suffered cuts to medial research under the GOP-Democratic sequestration deal.
Cantor agrees, and is pushing the GOP caucus to embrace pediatric research as a cause. It’s a conservative principle to prioritize federal spending, he said, such as making sure pediatric research doesn’t fall behind adult-disease research. “There is a role for government when it comes to medical research and cures,” said Cantor, who has spearheaded two other pediatric health care bills signed by Obama.
Gabriella was only 9 when she was diagnosed in November 2012 with a tumor the size of a walnut. In a symbolic gesture to support her cancer awareness campaign, Gabriella and her family smashed walnuts with frying pans. They started The Smashing Walnuts Foundation, and Gabriella became a national spokesperson for pediatric health research — raising money, writing a book, and appearing in unforgettable videos.
“I got cancer so that not as many kids will be dying next,” Gabriella says at the end of this Fox News profile. “If I lose my battle, then I want other people to carry on for more. I’ll be with my friends and I’ll be in a good place and it won’t be all that bad.” Then she shrugged.
Gabriella died in October.