WASHINGTON -- Congress managed to beat the Memorial Day vacation traffic by fleeing town on Thursday. But what it failed to do before taking 10 days off was pass a bill that gives health officials the funding they estimate they need to combat the Zika virus.
What Congress did instead is offer an object lesson in what's wrong with Congress, treating the need to respond to Zika not as a public health emergency that's already affected more than 1,500 Americans, but as an opportunity to pass other things, usually things the public doesn't want.
It began in February when the Obama administration, advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency funding to begin dealing with Zika. The virus is especially dangerous to pregnant women, who, according to a new study, have up to a 13 percent chance of delivering a baby with microcephaly.
The idea had been to begin getting ready for the mosquitoes that carry Zika well before the start of summer breeding season, and to dramatically ramp up vaccine research, education and mitigation efforts. Congress decided that the administration already had enough money. The White House had to transfer $589 million from its successful, ongoing Ebola response to get started.
And that's when Congress started treating the still-standing funding request (the administration wants to replace that Ebola funding) as an opportunity.
The Senate, rather than simply bringing up a bill to answer the request, decided to attach it to a must-pass spending bill. Republicans, when offered the chance to consider a clean Zika bill, said they might do so -- but only if Democrats agreed to Obamacare cuts.
The spending bill was a combination of money for military construction, Veterans Affairs, housing and urban development, and transportation programs. Buried in that huge measure were provisions to weaken truck driver fatigue rules, backed by an industry that spends $20 million a year to influence Congress. Several senators offered an amendment to oppose the rollbacks, but they never got to bring it up. Senate leaders instead brought up an amendment for a $1.1 billion Zika bill. In the end, 89 senators voted for the overall package.
That left the House, which did bring up a standalone Zika bill, but with only $622 million, or about a third of the request. But it also sensed an opportunity. Leaders there decided to rename a deregulatory pesticide bill as a Zika bill. Backed by agriculture and pesticide industries which spend more than $30 million a year to influence Congress, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act, which would exempt pesticides from the Clean Water Act, had failed to pass the Senate for five years. Rebranded the Zika Vector Control Act, it passed the House Tuesday.
But there is no companion pesticide bill in the Senate, which means it would go nowhere unless the House found a way to make the Senate take it up.
Wednesday night, around 9:30, Republican leaders found a way. They went to the Rules Committee, which sets the rules for measures that get debated and voted on in the House, and put together their short-funded Zika bill and the pesticide exemption bill with the House's military and veterans funding bill. They then attached all of that to the great big funding bill the Senate passed -- the one that weakens rest rules for truck drivers. It passed, 233-180, on a nearly perfect party-line vote.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who managed some of the floor debate for the GOP, declared linking it all together "makes a lot of sense."
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the Rules Committee, said the step showed the House was functioning effectively.
"We care about people. We're doing the right thing," Sessions said. "What is the administration doing other than just accusing us of not spending more money?"
Democrats didn't see it that way, and all but one voted against the cobbled-together bill, and argued that going slow on Zika prevention could prove extremely costly.
According to an estimate cited by CDC head Tom Frieden, the cost of treating microcephaly for one baby is about $10 million. At that rate, it would take just 60 infants born with microcephaly to absorb the entire $600 million cost difference of those two Zika bills. More than 300 pregnant women in the U.S. and its territories have Zika.
"Yes, we all want to be fiscally responsible, but ... if all you're worried about is the bottom line ... [the costs of] not adequately funding what is needed to combat this crisis ... will be prohibitive," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. "You ain't seen nothing yet. So we can nickel and dime this if we want, but we do so at our own peril."
Of course, Congress is now on vacation, so it will be nearly two weeks before senators and House members even start to sit down to work out the differences between the giant spending measure the Senate passed and the additions to it the House made on its way out the door Thursday.
And when they do -- mostly behind closed doors -- what emerges may or may not be the Zika funding that the health officials believe is required. But there will be other things that will have to pass along with it, that on their own would go nowhere or face veto threats, like those watered-down tired trucker rules and other things, such as restrictions on President Barack Obama's ability to close the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. If Obama or anyone else wants to block any of that, they'll have to block the Zika measure, too.