Congress Has No Good Reason to Delay Zika Funding

They're coming.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

More than two months after the White House asked Congress for more than $1.8 billion to fight the Zika virus, Congress has yet to provide it. President Barack Obama, Republicans claim, has failed to explain in sufficient detail how his administration would spend the money.

Perhaps his 25-page proposal, sent to House Speaker Paul Ryan in February, got lost in interoffice mail. If so, no worries: There’s also a summary on the Web. Most of the money -- about $1.5 billion -- will go to the Department of Health and Human Services to help states control the mosquito that carries the virus, expand programs to test for it, and work on developing a vaccine.

QuickTake Zika Virus

The case for action now is overwhelming. The virus is active in central and South America, and come summer, the Zika-bearing Aedes aegypti mosquito will begin to spread the disease across much of the continental U.S. Pregnant women who contract the disease are at greater risk of giving birth to children who are stillborn, have microcephaly, or experience eye and brain lesions. Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults, which can lead to paralysis.

Among the questions Republicans say remain unanswered is what portion of the money is needed for the current fiscal year. That level of detail wasn’t necessary in 2005 when President George W. Bush requested and received emergency funding from Congress to combat avian flu. Nor was it necessary in 2014 when Obama sought and received emergency funding to fight Ebola.

Republicans also argue that the federal government has enough money left over from the fight against the Ebola virus to deal with Zika, since Ebola is no longer a public health emergency. But the administration has already transferred $600 million in Ebola funds to fight Zika, and it claims that taking more from that effort could leave Americans exposed to another outbreak; there have been Ebola cases recently in Guinea and Liberia.

Finally, House Republicans say that any request for new money to combat Zika should come through the regular appropriations process, rather than through an emergency request. That approach would delay any new money until the end of the year -- at the earliest. But emergency requests are called that for a reason. If a disease that could endanger newborns across the southern half of the U.S. by July doesn’t qualify as an emergency, it’s hard to say what does.

Whatever the explanation for Republicans’ truculence -- and opposition among some factions of the party to any new spending undoubtedly factors into it -- it’s a delay that could endanger lives. There have already been 891 cases of Zika in the U.S., including 81 pregnant women. Republicans need to move, and quick.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.