April 19, 2016; USA Today
In February, the Obama administration requested a $1.9 billion appropriation for federal activities to combat the dangers of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne virus believed to increase the likelihood of microcephaly in infants born to infected mothers. (Zika has also been tied to other negative health outcomes for humans, but Zika is a recent enough public health issue that scientific data are still being collected.)
Congress has not taken action on the president’s request, and Democratic legislators and the White House see Republicans playing politics with a public health crisis in the making. “That’s a significant problem, particularly when you consider that there’s no good reason that Congress hasn’t acted,” Obama Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “And the opportunity to get ahead of this potentially serious situation is washing away. And that’s a significant problem.”
Not surprisingly, Congressional Republicans have a different interpretation—good stewardship. They point out that the $1.9 billion request was uncharacteristically vague, with the amount being able to be shifted between federal agencies without Congressional oversight and with no expiration date for expending the funds. Quoted in USA Today, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said:
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So when the administration requested that $1.9 billion supplemental, which was just almost a slush fund across the government, the money could be used for any purpose. We said, “Look, we don’t do business that way. We appropriate the taxpayer’s dollars in a responsible, direct way, with details we can all understand.”
Rogers has also pointed out that Congress has already authorized almost $600 million in this year’s federal budget to be reallocated to Zika-related projects. “My present information leads me to believe that that’s plenty of money for this fiscal year. We have five months left,” Rogers said.
While it’s rare, Congress has been known to act quickly on appropriations related to public health. Even so, it rarely provides all funds requested and typically imposes fiscal year restrictions on when funds are either spent or reauthorized. At the same time, emergency public health appropriations need greater flexibility in allocation because priorities and initiatives make change quickly based on events and emerging science.
The good news is that the administration updated its spending request last week to include more details Congress has been asking for. Our hope is that both sides will negotiate in good faith, allowing federal expenditures—with adequate oversight—to be made quickly.—Michael Wyland