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The Zika crisis: How Congress abandoned its duty to govern

We can probably admit that the spectacle of a totally dysfunctional Congress has its entertaining aspects. We’re familiar with the old saying that “no man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” a sign that lawmakers are apt to do the least damage when they’re idle.*

But the point comes when Congress needs to act in an emergency. Then the fun’s over. That point is now, and the emergency is the spread of the Zika virus. We are now in the last week of the House and Senate sessions until after Labor Day, Sept. 5, and efforts to pry money out of the chambers to push on with research on a Zika vaccine have come to nought. 

It’s tempting to blame Republicans and Democrats equally for the impasse, but that’s not what the facts dictate. It’s the GOP that has insisted on saddling Zika funding measures with riders that are in some cases irrelevant and in others actually damaging to public health. Democrats have resisted these cynical stunts, with good reason.  

Let’s look at the record. 

First, there’s no dispute that Zika poses a potentially major public health crisis. Superficially, the mosquito-borne illness, which can also be transmitted sexually, appears to be mild; its most common symptoms are fever, rash, muscle pain and headache, which appear within a few days of infection. Under the surface, however, Zika is associated with birth defects of children born to infected mothers, particularly microcephaly, and with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which can lead to permanent nerve damage.

No cases of local infections have been reported yet among U.S. states, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 1,132 cases picked up during foreign travel. But 2,526 cases of local infections have been reported in American Samoa (31), the U.S. Virgin Islands (21), and Puerto Rico (2,474). That’s a harbinger of the virus’s spread onto the mainland, with the southeastern region at most risk.

Federal public health officials have been pleading for Congress to break the logjam over funding for a vaccine. The delay means “it's going to take that much longer to prove that the vaccine works," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told the Associated Press. "If it takes that much longer to prove that it works then you take that much longer to get it out to the people who need it."

A letter sent this week to congressional leaders from Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Shaun Donovan, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, warned that if Congress adjourns for its seven-week vacation without action, “thousands more Americans could be infected with Zika virus, including potentially thousands of pregnant women leading to an unknown number of infants born with microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects.” They continued: “We expect local transmission this summer as mosquito populations continue to become more active.”  

So what has happened? The GOP majorities in the House and Senate have saddled Zika funding bills with riders they know are unacceptable to Democrats. Some would roll back long-standing environmental programs, others bar funding for affiliates of Planned Parenthood, a GOP bugaboo. The latter stunt is especially cynical, since the public health services provided to women by Planned Parenthood are especially crucial now, when a medical threat with particularly acute consequences to pregnant women is on the rise. 

President Obama requested $1.9 billion in Zika funding  in February. The House and Senate responded with their own funding measures — the Senate at $1.1 billion, the House at $622 million. The House proposal would raid other disease programs to cover the bill.

The House went one step further in May, voting mostly along party lines to loosen pesticide regulations, ostensibly in the name of fighting Zika. (Voting with the GOP majority were 23 Democrats.) The House commitment amounted to rebranding an old anti-regulation measure, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act, as the "Zika Vector Control Act." Possibly hoping that no one would notice that the House was proposing a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisc., tried to blame Democrats for opposing “the House’s latest effort to fight Zika at its source.” He asserted that the Administration was putting the interests “of environmental interest groups ahead of the public, adding fatuously, “the health of the public is at stake.”

More recently, Senate Republicans stuck language into a Zika funding bill that would block funding for ProFamilias, a group that works with Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sought to get the language removed, but was rebuffed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who this week told reporters, “the time for a debate about the content of it is over.”

In exchange, Democrats asked Republicans to drop a budget cut to the 2010 health-care law and remove language that effectively prevented funding from going to ProFamilias, a group that partners with Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) Tuesday rejected that offer, saying the time for such negotiations had passed. Mr. McConnell said Democrats would have to decide whether they would again this week block the GOP-backed measure, which passed the House last month almost entirely along partisan lines.

“The time for a debate about the content of it is over,” Mr. McConnell told reporters Tuesday. As we write, no sign of a deal has emerged.

It seems obvious that the Congressional majority is comfortable putting off a Zika bill indefinitely, because to most Americans the threat still seems an abstract one. Zika is still limited to infections acquired overseas by a relative handful of travelers—except in Puerto Rico, which is safely remote from most lawmakers’ districts and therefore not a major concern. But by the end of this summer there may well be outbreaks of locally transmitted disease, and even a few babies with birth defects born in these same lawmakers districts. Then the public will be looking for someone to blame, and the guilty parties will be easy to identify. They’ll be the ones whose answer to a public health crisis was to make hostages out of environmental safety and women’s health.

* The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but appears to have originated in an 1866 surrogate’s decision in New York.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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