In the midst of an election cycle that consumes all, it can be easy to forget that the act of governing the country must continue. And with the divisiveness surrounding Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump, lawmakers almost begin to look competent. Almost. Congress upheld this notion just two weeks ago when both the House and the Senate signed bills that will keep the government open through December and allocated resources toward a few key issues. The aid package came just as lawmakers were about to depart for recess again, just a month after their 42-day summer break.
The law allocates $1.1 billion toward addressing the spread and treatment of the Zika virus. Of that, $397 million will be directed toward developing a vaccine for Zika, and $394 million will be given to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health to control the spread of mosquitoes carrying the virus.
The money could not have come soon enough, according to CDC Director Tom Frieden. “The cupboard is bare,” said Frieden in late August. “Basically, we’re out of money, and we need Congress to act to allow us to respond effectively.” President Obama had initially asked Congress for $1.9 billion to combat Zika in February. Since January 2015, almost 4,000 people in the mainland United States and over 24,000 in United States territories including Puerto Rico have contracted the Zika virus, according to the CDC. That figure includes more than 2,400 pregnant women, for whom the virus can cause birth defects. Congress allocated $66 million to aid Zika victims in Puerto Rico, where positive tests for people suspected to have the virus have increased from 14 percent in February to 64 percent in June.
This summer, emergency aid packages were delayed after Democrats claimed that Republicans had sabotaged legislation by adding provisions that would restrict funding to Planned Parenthood. “Women’s health should never be treated like a political football,” said Sen. Patty Murray, who is the ranking member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “I am glad that Republicans finally agreed to set aside the extreme provisions that would have specifically blocked Planned Parenthood health care providers from accessing critical funding.”
In avoiding a shutdown, Congress also allocated money toward addressing the lead poisoning epidemic in Flint, Michigan. This action came after the Republicans yielded to the Democrats, who refused to sign a bill that didn’t include aid for the city’s residents. The law will direct resources toward improving the city’s infrastructure, replacing the lead water pipes that have already affected thousands. As always though, there is a catch. The bill passed by the House authorized $170 million to Flint, while the Senate allocated $220 million to the city. In order to resolve these differences, the House and Senate leadership plan to convene a conference in order to reach a compromise between the two bills. This holdup is part of the reason Flint and Michigan leaders called for emergency funds, which sidestep the conference process to take aggressive measures in addressing the crisis.
Lastly, Congress provided money for flood relief in Louisiana. While the rest of the country has moved on, the flood is still wreaking havoc across the state. It left 13 people dead, damaged an estimated 130,000 homes, displaced thousands and caused roughly $8.7 billion in damages. Despite President Obama’s calling for Congress to provide the state with a $2.6 billion stopgap, the House and Senate each passed bills that provided only $500 million. “It’s not the last piece; it’s the first step,” said U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. “Obviously, there’s a lot more work to do, but this first step was in many ways the hardest piece.”
By avoiding a shutdown, Democrats helped Republicans maintain the perception that the GOP can manage the federal government, an image they’ve worked hard to create since taking over both chambers of Congress in 2014. But this law provides evidence to the contrary. Aid for Florida, Puerto Rico, Flint and Louisiana has all come too little, too late. Even without a shutdown, the congressional leaders made it clear to the American public why new leadership is necessary.
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