If there's one thing that seems like it should be easy to agree on, it's that the Zika virus is bad news. The World Health Organization has already declared it a public health emergency, and the Centers for Disease Control has come right out and said that the Zika virus is "scarier" than it thought. Given that the virus is already causing havoc in Puerto Rico, and is poised to do the same in many continental U.S. states in the coming months, it seems reasonable that President Obama would call for some major preventative funding ASAP. But, according to CNN, even though the White House has requested $1.9 billion dollars to put towards the Zika fight, Congress isn't so sure about signing off on it. Why won't Congress approve Zika funding? The reasons aren't entirely clear. But the push back seems to be, unsurprisingly, a partisan issue, with Republicans arguing that Obama's request is overinflated and unnecessary — particularly as Congress has already approved $600 million in funds previously earmarked for Ebola to be put towards Zika instead.
So the question is, who's right? Are the Democrats exaggerating the severity of the virus, and requesting an amount that is unnecessarily high? Or are the Republicans just unwilling to play ball with the White House, and putting Americans at risk as a result?
Many of the Democrats criticizing Congress for its perceived lack of action on the issue are arguing that the Zika virus doesn't care about budgets and timelines — it's going to become a problem whether or not the government is ready to deal with it. According to the CDC, mosquito-borne cases of the Zika virus are already spreading throughout the U.S. Territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa). And, according to USA Today, 48 pregnant women in Puerto Rico have already been diagnosed with the Zika virus, meaning that their unborn babies are now at risk for devastating birth defects as a result.
White House Press Secretary John Earnest criticized Congress for stalling to make a decision about Zika funding, noting that swift action is necessary, according to a YouTube video of his briefing about the issue.
We have an opportunity to get out ahead of this disease. The sense is not that we can prevent it entirely, but we can begin to take steps right now, before the disease is widespread in the United States, that can prevent it from having the worst possible impact on our public health. And because of Congress' refusal to act, our ability to take those steps is quite limited right now.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan isn't exactly sure that the White House's plan is the most fiscally responsible. According to Reuters, Ryan responded to the criticism by saying,
We're looking at all different options. The [Obama] administration has a bit of a track record of over-requesting what they need.
Republican Rep. Tom Cole similarly took issue with the idea that the GOP was deliberately holding back on funding, according to The Atlantic. He responded in a statement by saying,
I want to remind the White House, it was a Republican Congress that appropriated everything and more to combat Ebola just last year. It was a Republican Congress that provided double the increase in funds for the National Institutes of Health requested by the White House. And it was a Republican Congress that appropriated more for the Centers for Disease Control than the White House requested.
But, of course, the details over who did what and how aren't really going to matter if the Zika virus does turn out to be the kind of public health crisis in the United States that experts are calling for. Politics aside, many Americans — especially those who are or could be pregnant during the outbreak — will want to know that enough is being done to keep them safe. And it is very possible that the government is running out of time to do it.