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Congress Takes Up Zika Again

detail of a vial of the NIAID Zika Virus Investigational DNA Vaccine
A vial of the NIAID Zika Virus Investigational DNA Vaccine.
Photo courtesy the National Institute of Allergey and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Congress returned to Washington this week – whether it got back to work is a matter of opinion – and that means it’s time to renew the politicking and posturing over Zika.

Since I last wrote about American politicians’ response to the disease, about 20 more locally transmitted cases have been found in Florida, almost all in the greater Miami area. The much-feared spread of transmission across much of the Southeast coast has apparently not happened yet. This may be because of dumb luck, a conveniently timed drought that is suppressing mosquitoes in much of the region, or more effective and vigilant mosquito control efforts. These factors are not mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, it is likely more than one of them is at play.

The problem is vastly greater in Puerto Rico, where Zika began spreading months before it did on the mainland, but so far no large number of adverse consequences have been reported there, either. This tracks to some extent with what has happened in Brazil and other South American countries. In those places, Zika produced large numbers of devastating birth defects in some regions – generally poor and rural – but not in more developed cities where the virus-carrying mosquito is also prevalent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, out of the over 600 pregnant women in the mainland U.S. who show evidence of possible Zika infection, 16 of those pregnancies resulted in infants with birth defects and five ended in stillbirths or miscarriages with some evidence of similar defects as of late August. While these results are sobering, for now they fall well short of earlier studies suggesting that 13 or even up to 29 percent of infected women would have serious complications with their pregnancies.

Scientists are not sure what accounts for the “missing” birth defects, but there is growing suspicion that there is another contributing factor that is present in some places but which may be absent in others, possibly including stateside locations. Time and further research will likely tell.

In the meantime, Republicans and Democrats could not get together on emergency federal funding for anti-Zika efforts before lawmakers recessed for the summer. A good case can be made that they won’t get together in the fall, either, because each party’s base has drawn red lines around the issue. For Republicans, any of that funding going to Planned Parenthood is a no-go because of the organization’s provision of abortion-related services, even if the Zika money itself is allocated for other uses. For Democrats, making a point of including Planned Parenthood is equally important, as is the principle that “emergency” Zika funding should not be offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget – even if the spending is for previously allocated but unused funds for fighting Ebola (whose outbreak has been contained outside this country) or for Affordable Care Act activities.

As important as these principles are to each party, my guess is that the risk of being blamed for the fate of a baby born with a Zika-linked birth defect, and especially of having images of that baby go viral on social media just before the election, is even greater. It is a risk neither party can reasonably want to run. So without giving an iota of credit to any particular lawmaker for actually caring about the problem or considering whether the emergency funding will accomplish anything noteworthy, I think it is more likely than not that Congress will pass some sort of Zika funding bill in the next month or two. Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami resident who probably cares more about this issue than most of his peers, tried to break the logjam after the Senate again failed to pass Zika funding on Tuesday, with a proposal to attach the spending to legislation that Congress must pass to keep most of the government operating past the fiscal year end on Sept. 30.

As cynical as all this sounds, and I think it’s plenty cynical, this is not very different from how most legislation gets passed. You need to assemble a coalition, usually involving members of both parties. And unless it is an unreachably large coalition, in today’s environment you also need the assent of a president to get anything done. The increasing polarization of our parties has made this result harder to achieve, but the mechanical and political considerations are pretty much the same as always.

When enough politicians of both parties think voting in favor of something is the best course of action, something gets done. I’d look for some Zika funding to get done before November, if not via Rubio’s proposal, then by another avenue.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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