Letter to the Editor

Grassley on Zika funding

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

There's an effort to distort my votes on spending to fight the Zika virus to make it seem as if I don't care about women and children's health.

That's not the case. I voted for $1.1 billion in emergency spending for Zika. I also voted for the underlying bill to which the emergency spending was added. The Senate passed the bill including the $1.1 billion. The House of Representatives approved a smaller amount. The Senate and House reconciled the different amounts, and Senate Democrats filibustered the bill, blocking the increased emergency funding.

Before any of those votes took place, at the urging of congressional Republicans, the federal government identified $589 million of money already on hand that could be spent on fighting Zika. This money was largely left over from the Ebola crisis. (Congress approved $5.4 billion emergency funding for Ebola.) The Obama Administration identified this available money in April.

Despite sounding the alarm, the Obama Administration had spent only a portion of that money on Zika as of July 6, according to news reports. I wrote to the agencies seeking answers on why they were slow to distribute Zika funding.

The agencies -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response within the Department of Health and Human Services -- already have big budgets for public health crises. They're designed to adapt and respond quickly to new problems. It's unclear why each new illness threat seems to leave them flat-footed. The taxpayers have every right to expect that the federal government will get the most bang for the buck before seeking more from the public purse. Good management of funds is called into question when the executive branch seeks emergency funding from Congress for every new public health concern, without even seeming to consider whether money left over from the previous public health concern could be used for the new one.

Roll Call newspaper reported Aug. 2 that the Obama Administration is "struggling to explain why it is pressing Congress for more money to fight the Zika virus while sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars that it already controls and could be used instead."

Agency responses to my inquiries are overdue. I'll continue to press for answers on why existing funding to fight Zika has been so slowly distributed when warnings about this threat have been circulating for months.