Politicians on the left like to say that budgets are “moral documents.” As Vice President Joe Biden has said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.” Conservatives, on the other hand, consider more spending than they deem prudent to be a moral crime. At his presidential campaign website, Senator Ted Cruz features a chart showing the burden of debt on a child born today at each stage of their life. “No responsible parent would leave their children with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,” Cruz writes. “We should not allow the government to do this to our children and grandchildren either.”
This concern for the well-being of future generations, and the appeal to reduce the deficit in terms of fundamental values, doesn’t hold up in the face of Republicans’ recent fight to shortchange an urgent effort to protect children from birth defects.
After months of delays, the Senate finally voted this week on federal funding to combat the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which causes microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads. Zika is responsible for “other severe fetal brain defects,” according to the Centers for Disease Control, which is studying the links between the virus and afflictions in adults like Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes temporary paralysis.
President Barack Obama first asked for $1.9 billion in Zika funding in early February, when the virus had already spread to 26 countries in Latin America. Congress sat for months on the request, which would go toward mosquito control, research into vaccines, and public education programs to fight contraction of the virus.
Since then, the first case of microcephaly caused by the Zika virus within the United States has been confirmed in Puerto Rico, and the CDC predicts that 20 percent of the island’s 3.5 million residents will contract the virus this year. (How that financially battered island is going to deal with a crippling virus outbreak is a whole other story.) More than 500 American travelers have contracted the disease—48 of them pregnant women—and 2.2 billion of the global population lives in “at risk” Zika areas. Mosquitoes carrying Zika are expected to reach the continental U.S. this summer.
The Senate put three proposals on the floor Tuesday, as amendments to a transportation and housing appropriations bill. The proposal that passed only offers $1.1 billion in new funding, part of a compromise hammered out by Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Patty Murray. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also gave Democrats a vote on the full $1.9 billion request, knowing that it would fail to reach the 60-vote cloture threshold amid Republican opposition (which it did, 50-47).
So Senate Republicans were only willing to cough up a little more than half of what public health agencies say is necessary to fight Zika. The third proposal would have also offered $1.1 billion, but pay for it with money from the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, making some people sicker to make other people well. That failed cloture as well, but received 52 votes, more than the president’s full funding request.
That inadequate Senate plan is an improvement on House Republicans’ plan. On Monday, they announced a $622 million package, less than one-third of Obama’s request. Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers claimed that the White House didn’t adequately explain what the Zika funding would be used for, leading them to make their own determination. The House bill would not be “emergency” funding, meaning that it would have to be incorporated into the overall funding process for the next fiscal year. So not only would Zika funding have to be offset by eliminating spending elsewhere in the budget, but it wouldn’t be available until October of this year.
The mosquitoes carrying Zika aren’t likely to stop infecting people in the intervening five months.
The Obama administration last month did transfer $589 million to Zika response from an account earmarked for emergency response to the Ebola virus. However, the White House has called this insufficient and also dangerous, since the money was still being used to fully eradicate Ebola and generate a vaccine. But cutting the fund before the virus has been eradicated reduces preparedness for another Ebola outbreak, to which Republicans will presumably react by raiding a future Zika fund, as the cycle repeats itself.
A spokesperson for Speaker Paul Ryan said that the House’s $622 million offer and the $589 million already transferred for Zika response should be considered in tandem as their overall commitment. But that still puts the House well short of the president’s request.
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren warned that such budget games are a risk to U.S. public health. “It is not possible to nickel and dime a health emergency without consequences,” Warren said. “As Republicans embrace this irrational anti-spending ideology, this country is put in greater and greater danger.”
That’s the real irony here. Republicans like to make the budget deficit a moral question about the hazards of unsustainable debt. But the hazards of hundreds of babies born with birth defects are far more immediate. And that leads you to this bizarre logic that America must allow children to suffer with potential ailments in order to express their values of fiscal responsibility.
It’s also a myopic way to look at the deficit. Investing money in public health today means not having to spend more in palliative care tomorrow. Stopping the Zika threat with $2 billion means not spending $3 or $4 billion to care for the deformities that would arise in children if nothing is done.
Senator Marco Rubio, whose home state of Florida is in the line of fire of the virus, has broken with his colleagues in demanding the full $1.9 billion request. “I don’t think we want to be halfway through the summer and wake up to the news that hundreds and hundreds of Americans in multiple states have been infected and we did nothing,” Rubio said last month.
Rubio is virtually alone in this concern among his colleagues. They would rather boast about saving a buck or two, regardless of how that decision puts the public at risk. Republicans claim to be the party of family values. But now we’ve seen their budget, and seen what they value.