If you’ve ever wondered whether Congress really deserves its approval rating, which just barely rises into the double digits, witness lawmakers’ reaction to the Zika virus.
Although the virus ordinarily is relatively harmless, if a pregnant woman is infected, it can cause microcephaly in her fetus, a serious birth defect resulting in an abnormally small head and stunted brain development.
An additional unnerving factor is that the virus spreads through sexual contact or by mosquitoes.
An outbreak in Brazil last year gave the United States plenty of warning of the potential for a North American epidemic, but congressional Republicans dragged their feet in addressing the possible crisis, insisting that President Barack Obama first divert spending from the ongoing Ebola crisis in Africa before they would consider new spending for a domestic health threat. Unfortunately, the country now is painted into that corner.
Government scientists have actually had to pull money intended for important work fighting cancer, diabetes, Ebola and other life-threatening diseases to fund research on a promising Zika vaccine this month. Human trials have begun using a piece of DNA called a plasmid that is engineered to produce Zika proteins, which prompt humans to produce their own immune response. But all of that is occurring without direct federal funding, and that’s shameful.
When lawmakers earlier this year finally did get around to passing legislation to authorize the needed spending on Zika research, Republicans still insisted on playing politics with the measure. Before leaving for an early summer recess, Senate Republicans passed a bill funding a $1.1 billion response to the virus, including work on a vaccine.
But the GOP loaded up the bill with poison-pill provisions — restricting Planned Parenthood, weakening environmental laws and, of course, defunding the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
“It is unthinkable that in the face of a public health emergency, Republicans chose to pass a hyperpartisan proposal that doubles down on using women’s health as a political football by restricting access to women’s health care, like contraception, which is especially critical to preventing the spread of this virus,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat.
Democrats blocked the partisan bill, and despite the fact that Republicans didn’t even deny what they had done, House Speaker Paul Ryan had the gall to blame Democrats for politicizing the issue.
Now, with locally transmitted cases showing up in Florida, the need for action is immediate and clear. State health officials have identified at least 16 cases of Zika spread by local mosquitoes in a Miami neighborhood.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida pleaded for action.
“We still need the federal government to show up,” Scott said. “The president and Congress have to work together.
“This is a national, international issue. It’s not just a Florida issue.”
To try to stop accidental transmissions of the Zika virus, the Food and Drug Administration last month told blood banks in Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties to stop collecting blood until testing can occur on donations. Louis Katz, chief medical officer with America’s Blood Centers in Washington, D.C., said testing is required in high risk areas of the country, where the mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, that carry the virus are present.
Such testing of blood donations is not likely to be necessary in the Kansas City area because those mosquitoes aren’t normally present in this region, Katz said. Area blood donors, however, may be asked whether they traveled recently in the affected parts of the U.S. and other countries and their donation can be deferred until a later date. The continental U.S. has close to 2,000 cases of the virus.
Health officials reported this month that the global outbreak has led to more than 1,800 serious birth defects.
Zika might be isolated to Florida for now, and mosquito season might be close to winding down in Missouri and Kansas, but after a winter slowdown, the disease could spread north and west.
Obama called on Congress to put politics aside and do its job. Democratic senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Ryan, urging them to bring Congress back from its long, ongoing vacation to vote for emergency funding. But they show no sign of backing down on the current bill’s partisan provisions.
This is not how Congress is supposed to work, especially in the face of a national health crisis.
Unfortunately, this is how Congress has worked in recent years, especially since Republicans made stonewalling Obama their top priority. And that’s a national tragedy.
Using a public health emergency to score partisan points is a new low. Given this sorry episode, the question really isn’t whether Congress deserves its low approval ratings.
The question is why those ratings are as high as they are.