Gridlock keeps Zika funding hostage

I want to talk about Zika with you for a moment, because if there are people out there who aren’t worried about it, they should be.

This is an emergency unfolding in slow motion, but it’s an emergency nonetheless.

It’s not hard to see what’s happening and where it’s going. It’s not hard to see what steps we need to take to contain it. It’s not hard to see that once it spreads, it’s very difficult to go back and un-spread it. And yet, this crisis -- especially for our home state -- has fallen victim to the same stupid, inexcusable congressional gridlock that has held up everything from the military’s budget to tax reform to transportation funding (all major items that Congress more or less agrees about).

If I may, this is why a lot of us in the Florida delegation (from both parties) are going through the roof right now. The CDC has run out of money that they can easily reprogram to fight Zika. Congress just took more than a month of vacation without providing the funding they need. We now only have a few more weeks to pass a budget or the government shuts down. Senate Republicans and Democrats aren’t fighting over the dollar amount for Zika. They’re fighting over unrelated policy riders. In the meantime, nearly 3,000 cases of Zika have been reported in the 50 states alone.

If you add in the reports from Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the US Virgin Island, that number exceeds to over 16,000 individuals. Let me repeat this -- there is virtually no disagreement about the top line dollar amount we’re going to allocate. There isn’t much disagreement about how those dollars should be allocated. And there certainly isn’t much disagreement about the severity of the problem. There is only a disagreement about which political points are going to get scored and by whom in the passage of this funding bill.

We’re talking about America’s newborns. We’re talking about permanent cognitive damage. There. Is. No. Excuse. Put politics aside for one afternoon and save American families from a lifetime of agony. Is that unreasonable?

My fellow Sunshine State colleagues, from both sides of the aisle, have tried to sound the alarm and demand publicly that our respective leadership officials work out a solution to the deadlock. It’s sad that this situation warrants such a repeated outcry (you’d think the gravity of Zika would be obvious to all lawmakers), but that’s just about how desperate we have become.

The text of our collective note is as follows:

"As Members of the Florida delegation, it is our hope that Congress take immediate action to pass emergency funding to combat the Zika virus.

Seven months have passed since the Administration submitted its $1.9 billion request for Zika response efforts, and nearly four months since initial legislative action in the House. Emergency funding is needed now for vital vaccine research and diagnostic development, mosquito surveillance and control efforts, and education initiatives to warn of the serious risk the virus poses, particularly for fetal development in pregnant women.

In that time, the virus has taken hold in the continental United States, hitting our home state of Florida especially hard. To date, more than 16,000 Americans have been infected with the Zika virus, of which more than 1,600 are pregnant women.  The spread of this disease has now resulted in 17 babies being born in the U.S. with Zika-related birth defects.

With federal funding for Zika response set to expire at the end of the Fiscal Year, Congress’ continued failure to act will halt federally funded vaccine research, mosquito control, testing, and surveillance.

Our most fundamental responsibility is protecting the health and safety of Americans. Please present a clean funding package to fight the Zika virus as soon as possible."

We sent this over just a few days ago, but even back in May, many of us wrote and spoke out about the concern that we wouldn’t be able to find a compromise, and here we are now in mid-September with nothing to show for the mothers and babies and families that live in constant fear of Zika’s threat.

I believe in the institution of Congress and it has been an incredible honor to be a part of it, but when we can’t even get the things done that we agree on -- things that affect defenseless newborns, it’s hard not to lose heart a little bit. The American people are way past fed up. I don’t blame you. Shame on Congress -- both sides, both chambers.

Rich Nugent (R), Brooksville,
Member of Congress,11th Congressional District