It’s tempting to write the “I hate Congress” sentiment off as a habit of American voters at this point, but that’s not giving Congress full credit for earning the public’s disdain, for instance with its response to the Zika virus outbreak this month.
At the beginning of April, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials held a briefing for White House reporters about the spread of Zika that could have been the opening scene of an “Outbreak” sequel. Dr. Anne Schuchat described a
rapidly spreading virus with no vaccine, no treatment and poor testing. Among its effects were severe brain damage in newborns and paralysis in adults.
“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” she said.
After a $1.9 billion emergency funding request from the White House to prevent the spread of Zika in February, Congress has agreed to … nothing.
In fairness, it’s not that Congress has done nothing related to Zika. They’ve debated it, argued about it, gone on recess and then worked on it some more. Last week, the House passed a $622 million package, about a third of what the White House wanted, taken out of money approved to respond to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Because House Republicans argued that the White House was padding its Zika request, they pointed out that the $622 million would just be a cash-infusion to get the government through September, and that the president should just ask for more later if he needs it.
House Democrats rejected that approach, which was pushed by outside conservative groups, saying the House should approve the full $1.9 billion as soon as possible. But their alternative lumped Zika funding with money to address the Flint, Mich., water crisis and the opioid epidemic — real problems, but more than Republicans would ever deal with at once.
On the day after the House passed its bill, the Senate passed a bipartisan $1.1 billion measure, without offsetting cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. If that were the end of the road, a three-month lag on emergency funding to combat Zika would be hard enough to justify. But where is the compromise between the House’s offset, two-thirds reduction of what the CDC says it needs and the Senate’s $1.1 billion? A speedy resolution is hard to imagine.
Much of the debate last week was about how to prepare for Zika when comes here, but Zika has already arrived. There are already more than 1,300 confirmed cases in the U.S. More than half are in Puerto Rico.
Local newspapers now include headlines like “Pregnant Connecticut teen shocked to find out she has Zika” and “Florida pregnant women with Zika quadruples under new guidelines.” It all feels like an emergency, but the debate in Congress remains leisurely.
One voice breaking through is that of Sen. Marco Rubio, a lone Republican to not only support the White House’s $1.9 billion request, but to say even that may not be enough. Last week he complained the House bill “just isn’t going to cut it,” and suggested that Congress add a clawback provision for the Zika funds if the White House really is padding its request, as House Republicans warned. In other words, if the money isn’t needed once the crisis passes, the Florida senator said, the money could go back to the Treasury.
Rubio’s willingness to go it alone is either due to the fact that his home state is already suffering the most from Zika, or the fact that he’s not on the ballot in November, or both.
Either way, he’s warned
both chambers that if Zika proves to be as bad as health officials fear, “Congress is going to have to explain to the people why it is we sat around and did nothing on something of this magnitude.”
Rubio may be leaving the Senate, but those words could haunt Congress well beyond his tenure.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.