Is Congress on the side of the Zika-carrying mosquitos?
Earlier today I blogged James Surowiecki’s review of three books by the economist Joseph Stiglitz. Here is Surowiecki’s column this week in the New Yorker:
More than three months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked Congress for $1.9 billion to deal with an impending epidemic of the Zika virus, which can cause microcephaly in unborn children. Since that request was made, the disease, which is carried by mosquitoes and can also be sexually transmitted, has continued to spread rapidly in Central and South America, and has infected at least seventeen hundred people in the U.S., almost all of them in Puerto Rico. Yet even with mosquito season upon us, Congress has failed to appropriate any money to fight the virus. Last week, Thomas Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., said it was as though “you’re standing by and you see someone drowning, and you have the ability to stop them from drowning, but you can’t.”
The Senate did pass a spending-bill amendment that would have provided $1.1 billion in Zika funding, but the House offered far less—just six hundred and twenty-two million dollars, which it proposed to offset by cutting funding to the Department of Health and Human Services and spending on Ebola research. House Republicans also embedded this proposal in a bill that would exempt pesticide manufacturers from the Clean Water Act. It will be difficult, at best, for the Senate and House to reconcile their respective approaches, and last week, when Congress began a ten-day recess, no deal was in sight. This intransigence is especially frustrating because there is an established body of research into possible vaccines for the family of viruses to which Zika belongs. In fact, the National Institutes of Health said in March that it could have a vaccine candidate in human trials by the end of the summer. We also know a great deal about mosquito control, which means there’s a good chance that officials could stop Zika from getting further out of control, if they get the resources they need.
The Obama Administration has worked around congressional inaction by repurposing nearly six hundred million dollars for Zika research, five hundred million of which had been allocated for Ebola. But that’s a weak and temporary solution, and the fact that it was even necessary points to how reflexive and counterproductive the Republican distaste for federal spending has become. No one disputes that Zika represents a serious threat to pregnant women and their children, and you could argue, given that most Southern states are red states, that the G.O.P.’s constituents are at especially high risk. Medical research into vaccines and mosquito control should also be uncontroversial uses of government money, since these are classic public goods that the marketplace isn’t going to provide on its own.
Moreover, if we don’t pay to limit the spread of the virus now, . . .