Zika funding on Congressional docket

Rich Nugent (R), Brooksville, Member of Congress,11th Congressional DistrictWe’ve got a few big items for you this week:  House passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Military Construction/VA appropriations bill and a significant federal resource package to combat the impending Zika threat.

I’ve talked plenty in recent weeks about the Defense Authorization, so I won’t take up your time with it at this time.

For the most part, the big top line details about the MilCon / VA appropriations bill is a substantial increase in resources for VA over last year’s level.  That’s a positive and I sincerely hope Congress keeps after them about some lingering accountability issues.    

The real news of the week that I think merits some consideration is Zika and how we should be responding to it.  As I am sure you are aware by this point, the mosquito-borne virus causes serious birth defects and has already created a rolling emergency in the countries to our south. The sheer prevalence of Zika is so great in Brazil that it stands a serious health threat to those attending and competing in the upcoming Olympics. In fact, many athletes have already stated they will not attend for fear of contracting the virus. Needless to say, Zika is very serious.

Given that Zika can be spread through contact with both mosquitoes and humans, it’s easy to understand why Americans are beginning to worry – Zika is only a short flight away from becoming a widespread issue on our soil and we are already seeing traces of this evolving health threat. To date, there are 503 cases of Zika in the United States and 701 more cases reported in American territories.

A total of 113 pregnant women have been infected. If we break it down by state, Florida leads the confirmed Zika cases with 103, closely followed by New York (98), California (40) and Texas (32). The point is, Zika is exploding in slow motion and if we don’t do something soon – especially with the height of the mosquito season upon us – our expectant mothers and unborn babies are in grave danger (if you’ve ever seen a picture of the devastating effects of Zika, you know exactly what I am talking about).

In any case, the House had a contentious vote this week over how the federal government should proceed with funding – how much for vaccines, how much for education, how much for mosquito control, how much to spend here, how much to spend there.  In short, there is broad agreement about the top line number that the administration requested.

The main dispute came over whether to provide the full amount all at once or in stages.  The bill we passed provides $622 million in immediate Zika combat funding for the HHS, State Department and USAID. There is another $600 million or so we’re reallocating from an unused Ebola account.  These are emergency “supplemental” dollars.  Supplemental, of course, indicating that it’s outside of the normal budget for these agencies.  The final tranche of funds will come in a few months during the normal budgeting process.

Every penny is paid for by cuts or reprogramming elsewhere, not a single new taxpayer dollar is needed. And the reason why the funding has a hard stop at the end of September is because October 1 marks the beginning of appropriation disbursement for 2017. This dual approach gives us more time to carefully consider what the federal government’s next step and additional support should be.  Think of it as a tiered roll out, a significant down payment to eradicating Zika for good.

If it were solely up to me, we’d be doing this a little differently - a little more consensus building and a little less partisan shot-taking.  We all agree on the urgency and the top line total amount.  We agree more or less on where it needs to go.  It seems like we should be able to figure it out from there.  Frankly, given the urgency for Florida, I would like to go ahead and knock it out.

It doesn’t need to take 5 extra weeks to get the resources into the field because we disagree on timing.  Some of my colleagues voted against this 2/3 package because they wanted the final 1/3 to be included now as well.  I understand where everybody is coming from, but this is classic Washington on both sides.  

What worries me now is the potential inability to find a compromise. Zika is not some imaginary sci-fi threat, it’s a real life-damaging virus that is devastating families at an ever-increasing rate right here at home. If it’s allowed to get out of hand, we’re going to be looking at significantly more money later.  

Everyone believes that something needs to get done. Everyone pretty much agrees on what needs to get done.  It’s a sign of the times that even on something so widely supported, we can’t get to a solution without pulling our hair out.  

End of the the day, this is about mothers and babies to me. I look forward to a quick compromise and I remain ready to work to make that happen.

I’d love to hear from you on this issue. Is this something your family is watching?  Do you feel like you’re getting the information you need on Zika?  Is there more we could be doing there?

Thanks as always and please let me know if there’s anything else on your mind as well.

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