“NO” on Un-Offset Emergency Zika Funding

On Tuesday, the Senate will vote on three separate proposals to provide emergency supplemental appropriations to combat the growing threat of the Zika virus.

Zika is a significant and growing threat that lawmakers should take seriously. However, it should not be used as an excuse to play politics, spend in excess of the budget caps, provide long term spending like enhanced Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico, or appropriate beyond what is needed before the beginning of the next fiscal year. The Obama administration’s demand for $1.9 billion in emergency spending combined with its lack of responsiveness to Congress on the subject suggests it is trying to accomplish one or more of those goals.

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Administration began the year with $2.77 billion in unobligated Ebola funds that could be used for “other infectious diseases,” like Zika. Some of these funds ($589 million), have already been repurposed from various accounts by the Administration to combat Zika. With more money available, Congress does not need to advance an emergency supplemental to combat Zika. If lawmakers feel otherwise, they should certainly not be doing so without offsets, which Heritage Action outlined in a letter to chairmen Rogers and Cochran in April.

What’s more, the Senate appears to have put forward a process that will allow political “cover votes” for Senators wishing to claim to be for the $1.9 billion enhanced Zika funding (Nelson-Rubio amdt #3898) and those claiming to be for a moderately more fiscally responsible package (Cornyn amdt #3899). Ultimately the $1.1 billion, fiscally-irresponsible package (Blunt-Murray amdt #3900) is intended to be the “real vote.” As Senator Nelson told CQ yesterday, “I think it’s already baked, in that they’re going to do … the $1.1 [billion].”

The combination of bad policy and political show votes is one reason why so many Americans are cynical about how Washington operates.

By comparison, the House is moving forward with a different approach, providing enhanced Zika funding but only as a bridge to the end of the fiscal year until new appropriations authority is provided through the regular process. Importantly, the funds included in the House bill are provided in the form of transfer authority from other accounts, and thus appear to be fully offset (though there is no CBO score at this time). While the need for such funding is still questionable given existing flexibility, this appears to be a more reasonable approach.

Senators should oppose the $1.9 billion Nelson-Rubio amendment (#3898) and $1.1 billion Blunt-Murray amendment (#3900), both of which provide emergency funding without offsets. Considering the amount of unobligated funds still available to combat Zika, Senators should also look with skepticism at the high level of funding contained in the Cornyn amendment (#3899), though rescinding funds from Obamacare’s Prevention and Public Health (PPHF) slush fund is a worthwhile effort in its own right.

Heritage Action opposes the un-offset Senate Zika funding amendments and will include the vote on the Blunt-Murray amendment (#3900) on its legislative scorecard.

Note: Heritage Action views the Blunt-Murray amendment to be the “live-fire” or “real” vote of this process. Heritage Action reserves the right to key vote any other un-offset Zika funding proposals if this changes.

Related:
Heritage Action Letter to Chairmen Rogers and Cochran
Heritage: Obama’s Zika Request Can Be Paid for With Ebola Funds