Issue in Focus
May 13 2016
With the warm, muggy weather of summer fast approaching and the spread of the Zika virus continuing to ascend northward from South America, many Americans are worried that mosquito-borne transmission of Zika may become a reality in the continental United States. And there is good reason for concern: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa have already seen cases of Zika transmitted by local mosquitoes, and there have been several travel-associated cases of Zika in the 50 states.
Although the virus has relatively mild symptoms and is rarely fatal, infection during pregnancy may cause severe birth defects and neurological conditions, making Zika a major threat to pregnant women and their unborn children. That’s why several states have called on the federal government to provide emergency funds to help them marshal the public-health resources they need to protect their citizens from the potential spread of Zika.
Next week the Senate will debate these requests and will likely consider several measures, as amendments to an appropriations bill, that take dramatically different approaches to paying for the resources needed to prevent an emerging Zika crisis at home.
Two of the amendments take the discredited “spend now, pay later” approach that the American people have repeatedly rejected. Both Senator Nelson’s amendment and Senators Blunt and Murray’s amendment fail to specify how Congress would pay for the $1.9 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, that they authorize for Zika-related prevention and treatment. With our national debt quickly approaching $20 trillion, we simply cannot afford to continue to spend money the government doesn’t have.
A more fiscally responsible approach is taken in Senator Cornyn’s amendment, which would use a portion of an Obamacare slush fund, the Prevention and Public Health Fund, to pay for $1.1 billion of Zika funding. While this is a much smarter use of taxpayer dollars, Senate Democrats, who remain committed to defending every last feature of Obamacare, will likely prevent the amendment from receiving the support it needs to pass.
But this doesn’t mean the Senate is out of options. There are other ways to help fight Zika without driving the country further into debt. Indeed, with an annual federal budget of approximately $4 trillion, there are trillions of ways Congress can provide the money we need to prevent an outbreak of Zika without adding a dime to the deficit.
The most obvious place to find the money we need for emergency Zika-response efforts is the account Congress established back in 2014 to combat the Ebola epidemic, which currently has more than $2 billion in unused federal funds – more than enough to cover Zika-related expenses.
Taking money that was authorized to address a foreign threat that no longer exists and bringing it back home to fight a new and emerging mosquito-borne threat that risks harming Americans may be the most logical approach, but that doesn’t mean Senate Democrats won’t find it politically expedient to block any such measure in order to perpetuate their favorite myth that Republicans are heartless obstructionists.
But of course, the Senate is not controlled by the Democratic Party. So the question is: will we let them get away with it?