If you ever needed confirmation of how irredeemably FUBAR Washington, D.C., has become, look no further than the gridlock – actually, gridlock is too kind a word; let's go with rage-inducing shit show – surrounding funding to combat the Zika virus, which with every passing day becomes an increasingly clear and present danger to Florida's public health.
A quick recap: In February, the Obama administration asked Congress to allocate $1.9 billion in emergency funds to fight the virus, which can cause brain damage and other birth defects in the children of infected mothers. Republicans thought that was too much money. While Congress debated, the White House shifted $600 million from Ebola research – because that's not important – to Zika. In May, the U.S. Senate approved $1.1 billion for Zika, which Democrats grudgingly accepted.
Then it went to the conservative fever swamp of the House of Representatives, which deemed the Zika threat worthy of only $622 million and scrounged most of that money from other federal programs. After that, the two versions went to a conference committee, controlled by Republicans, to be reconciled. The bill that emerged restored the $1.1 billion, but came with a catch. Several catches, actually. Republicans packed the bill with a grab bag of riders that Democrats immediately deemed poison pills: $534 million in cuts to Obamacare, limits on Planned Parenthood's contraceptive services, reversing a ban on flying the Confederate flag in national cemeteries, and loosening EPA restrictions on pesticides.
So the White House threatened to veto. In late June, Democrats filibustered. And Republicans, sensing an opportunity to put their opponents on their heels in an election year, pounced.
"It's a talking point they want to take into the July Fourth recess," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida. "Sore losers," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called Democrats. "The Democrats are more focused on protecting the mosquito than they are protecting people," said Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyoming.
The media, so enamored with objectivity, largely refused to put blame where it unequivocally belonged. "Whichever side is more to blame," the New York Times reported, "it was clear that no new government funds would be approved ...." Whichever side is more to blame. "Members of Congress remain entrenched politically over funding to fight the Zika virus," wrote the Associated Press, "with Republicans and Democrats pointing fingers over the failure to act ...." Republicans and Democrats entrenched politically, pointing fingers. "The partisan clash casts serious doubt on whether Congress will be able to heed increasingly dire warnings from public health officials ...," wrote the Washington Post. Partisan clash.
With the waters sufficiently muddled and the nebulous, ever-present gridlock ascribed blame across the board, there's been no electoral price to pay for this brinksmanship. And if there's no electoral price to pay, there's no incentive to stop. This is, after all, must-pass legislation; everyone knows that. Everyone also knows that, if a clean Zika bill got to the floor, Democrats would vote for it and the White House would sign it. The only thing gumming the works is Republicans' desire to get a ransom for their hostage.
Two months later, the stalemate persists. More than 40 Senate Democrats asked Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to cancel the seven-week summer recess to address the issue. McConnell shrugged off their request. The secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the White House budget director implored Congress to act: "Failure to do so will significantly impede the administration's ability to prepare for and respond to possible local transmission in the continental United States and Hawaii, and address a growing public health crisis in Puerto Rico." Radio silence.
Meanwhile, the Zika threat grew apace. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 17,000 people in the United States and its territories have contracted Zika. Of them, 1,500 – including 80 in Florida – are pregnant mothers. At least 15 babies have been born with Zika-related defects. By year's end, the feds expect that 25 percent of Puerto Ricans will have Zika. And, for good measure, just last week, mosquitoes in Miami Beach tested positive for Zika. So far, at least 49 people have contracted Zika in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Health, not after traveling to Central or South America or having sex with someone who did.
It's only going to get worse. Indeed, it's only a matter of time before Florida is just as infected as Puerto Rico, before we hear about the first Zika case contracted in Orlando. Compounding matters further: Last week, we learned of research suggesting that mosquitoes can transmit Zika to their offspring, which means the virus won't go away when winter comes.
Long story short: This is a bona fide and looming crisis, especially for Florida. Republicans need to act like it, to stop playing games with people's lives, to stop using an emergency to elicit a ransom. If they refuse, Florida voters need to exact a price.