The failure so far to fully fund the fight against the Zika virus is a familiar tale of Washington gridlock, except this has life-and-death consequences beyond the name-calling. The virus is on the march in Florida and in parts of California, and record flooding in Louisiana is an open invitation to turn the state into a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
“They played a game of chicken with the understanding there was plenty of money to get through the recess,” says Republican strategist John Feehery, “and the game of chicken turned into a disaster.”
As someone who once worked at a high level in Congress, Feehery assumes congressional leaders will cut a deal as soon as they get back to Washington in September. He’s not sure which side caves, or both sides cave, but with news of the virus spreading beyond Florida, “Now you’ll have wholesale panic, which is just the way to get Congress to legislate.”
How did we get to the point where Congress refuses to act on a looming public health crisis, even in the face of reports of babies born with microcephaly after their mothers were infected with Zika?
“This one leaves me flabbergasted,” says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, about congressional dysfunction. “The level of reprehensibility is off the charts. People you would think of as pretty decent human beings have lost their moral compass because of the tribal warfare. This is putting ideology above health and suffering.”
The story of the Zika-funding gridlock begins in early February when President Obama submitted a request to Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency spending to combat the virus and to jumpstart research for a vaccine. The amount was based on what the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and the CDC (Center for Disease Control) said was needed.
Congress did nothing for almost four months. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, whose state was ground zero and would be hardest hit, was “basically screaming at Washington,” says a White House official.
In May, the Senate passed a $1.1 billion measure of emergency spending with over 60 votes. Though less than what the administration wanted, every Democrat voted for it along with several Republicans, including Marco Rubio, who was then still running for president, and several vulnerable GOP senators up for re-election, like Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk.
House Republicans refused to take up the Senate bill, and instead passed their own version, which moved money from fighting Ebola and from Obamacare to pay for Zika.
When the House and Senate bills went to Conference to be reconciled, the Republicans on the Conference committee added a number of ideological riders, striking a provision of the Clean Water Act, allowing Confederate flags to fly in military cemeteries, and without including the words “Planned Parenthood” withheld money from community health centers, which are run by Planned Parenthood.
The House passed the bill on a strict party line vote, but failed in the Senate to get any Democratic support because of the ideological riders, “poison pills” in congressional parlance.
The rhetoric on both sides got heated and more caustic, but somehow Congress managed to pass a bipartisan bill to help Puerto Rico avoid default, and Obama, seeking to build on that, called congressional leaders on July 4 to urge a compromise on Zika funding. According to the White House, Republican leaders refused to meet with HHS Secretary Burwell and White House chief of staff McDonough.
“Rightly or wrongly, they see trying and failing a better position than trying and caving on their principles,” says the White House official. What principles, you ask? The money, not quite $2 billion, is chump change in Washington. The grab bag of ideological riders is red meat for the base in an election year when Republicans have little to offer angry voters.
In an op-ed for USA Today on Aug. 3, Paul Ryan blames Democrats, writing, “They blocked our plan not once, but twice — a blatant ploy in an election year. Because of their actions, this funding is in limbo. It shouldn’t be.” He says the White House “turns a blind eye to all this.”
That’s quite a stretch considering President Obama requested funding more than six months ago, and the administration, coordinating with the CDC, has sent teams to Florida at Republican Gov. Scott’s request for vector control (spraying) and diagnostic testing for individuals who have been infected.
To keep up with the growing threat, the administration has moved money from different accounts, which the White House official likens to shifting chairs on the Titanic.
“We’ve re-programmed resources since March. The money has been spent, and we have barely enough to get through the end of the year,” he says.
The half-year Congress squandered in partisan infighting could prove costly. Developing a vaccine is the best way to combat Zika, and the private sector is more likely to invest if there is significant government backing.
The vaccine trial is moving forward, but with limited capacity, says the White House official. “You want to put as many eggs in the basket as possible. Like in any lottery, the more chances you have, the better chance of success.”
The politicians are gambling too that their inaction won’t be blamed for whatever preventable tragedies may unfold over the coming weeks and months.