photo by Erik F. Brandsborg
Zika is a mosquito-borne infection that has had devastating consequences in South America and has now spread into the mainland United States, with at least 15 indigenous cases observed thus far in Florida alone. It has also mutated into a virulent political disease.
In February, the Obama administration called for $1.9 billion in funding to fight the potential epidemic, suggesting the funds be used to study the virus, conduct mosquito control and educate the public. In June, the House of Representatives approved a spending bill that included $1.1 billion in Zika response funding, despite Democrats’ complaints that the plan was inadequate.
Senate Democrats, however, did more than complain – they rejected the funding measure outright. In addition to arguing that it provided too little funding, Democrats objected to other provisions in the bill, which would delete some unspent Obamacare funding and largely block any of the additional funds from flowing to Planned Parenthood.
The final legislation also stripped a House-passed amendment, backed primarily by Democrats but with support from key House GOP leaders, that would have barred the display of the Confederate battle flag at cemeteries operated by the Veterans Affairs department, which currently permits the flag to be displayed on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day. Senate Democrats seized on this deleted provision as well, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid commenting, “I don’t know why anyone would vote for [the funding bill]” without that amendment. Well, possibly because both parties have been passing funding bills for years without such a provision, and also because the legislation was supposed to address an impending health emergency. But this is an election year, so whatever.
This political tug-of-war arrived in my email inbox courtesy of the city of Fort Lauderdale with the assistance of our Florida office’s building management company, which forwarded the city’s notice. The message consisted of text drawn from a blog post by Sylvia Matthews Burwell, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. While it opened with basic information about what Zika is and how to prevent infection, the email also included the heading “What Is All This Talk About Funding?” Burwell helpfully explained that “Congress recently left Washington without providing these additional funds,” and said her agency hoped “there is action on this necessary funding as soon as the Congress returns.”
While the message is not untrue, it is no accident that the framing left the impression that it was the party in control of Congress, and not the opposing Democrats, who chose to block passage of the additional Zika funds.
Not that $1.1 billion, or even $1.9 billion, was likely to make any real difference this summer in the hands of HHS’ bureaucracy in Washington. These are the same people who blew up the launch of HealthCare.gov with four years to plan it. Mosquito control, the most immediate action involved in fighting Zika, is generally carried out at the local level anyway. While some places in the country may struggle with such measures, mosquito prevention is something with which Floridians are pretty familiar; for example, Lee County alone spends more than $16 million annually on mosquito control, according to The Washington Post. Federal money is, instead, likely to be most productive in researching the virus and developing an effective treatment, vaccine or both.
But even if the funding measure had passed, such research would probably not have yielded results quickly enough to affect the November election. So HHS chose to find some political benefit in its role in the Zika crisis anyway. Results come faster in the media shop than in the science lab, and Florida, which remains the only mainland U.S. state with confirmed indigenous cases, is a critical swing state in the presidential race.
In addition, Florida is home to a large population of residents from Puerto Rico, where Zika has been endemic for months and is now apparently spreading rapidly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that one in four of the island’s residents could be infected by the end of the year. Florida’s Puerto Rican population skews heavily in favor of Democrats, and blaming Congress – and, implicitly, Republicans – for inaction on Zika might spur more of them to turn up to vote for Hillary Clinton this fall. At least this seems to be HHS’ theory.
Back in 2014, the Obama administration faced heavy criticism for a slow response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Republicans subsequently won sweeping victories in an off-year election that November. Although I think it is a stretch to blame Ebola, rather than the botched liftoff of the Affordable Care Act among other issues, evidently Democrats decided they wanted a disease of their own to use as a campaign weapon this year.
Whatever consequences do arise from the Zika outbreak, the results of Democrats’ cynicism won’t be evident until months after this November’s vote, when women who are in the early stages of their pregnancies this summer deliver their children. These consequences could be relatively dire, at least in affected parts of Florida. While the initial infection can often be mild, or even asymptomatic, the potential birth defects can include such serious conditions as microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome. And while there are only a handful of confirmed cases for now, the initial infection can be so mild that the patient may not think to be tested.
The Obama administration has consistently excelled at three things throughout its tenure. First, politicizing federal bureaucracy. Second, campaigning on the president’s behalf. And third, mucking up most of the concrete projects it does undertake – including, but certainly not limited to, HealthCare.gov and other projects under HHS’ purview. All three of these skills are evident in the way HHS has forced Zika to evolve from a viral infection to a political one.