Wednesday, May 4, 2016

After Ebola: Congress Would Rather Take Time Off than Vote on $1 billion in Emergency Zika Funding

by Nomad

Less than two years ago, the nation was gripped by hysteria over the possibility of an Ebola epidemic inside the US. Republicans, assisted by right wing media, largely incited a panicked overreaction with baseless conspiracy theories  along with an irrational distrust of health officials.
Strangely, when it comes to Zika, Congress appear to be ignoring the problem altogether. So, what gives?

The Ebola Hysteria

Remember when Republicans and the right-wing media wigged out when they imagined Ebola was poised to attack the US? 
There are a lot of members of Congress who, if they could, would prefer that everybody forgot the things were said and done during the so-called Ebola panic. Understandably too. 

At that time, if you listened to right-wing media, (and much of the mainstream media) you might have thought the world's population was just about to be wiped out. Action had to be taken to save the US. 

Fox News became the theater in the round for the performance which went on for weeks in September and October 2014. At one point, talk show host Elisabeth Hasselbeck demanded that the entire country be put on lockdown like a prison. 
Hasselbeck is described as a "television personality," not- repeat, not a doctor nor political analyst and certainly not a journalist. Yet, despite her lack of serious credentials, before stepping down from Fox and Friends, she pulled in a million dollar salary at Fox News
Nice work if you can get it.

In a bit of race-baiting, Andrea Tantaros of Fox suggested that people who travel to the country and show symptoms of ebola will “seek treatment from a witch doctor” instead of go to the hospital. Fox host Steve Doocy suggested the CDC is lying about ebola because they’re “part of the administration”. Fox also promoted a conspiracy theorist who is trying to claim the CDC is lying when they caution people not to panic.
Fox News was, by no means, the only outlet that used the Ebola crisis to boost ratings. Probably not since the days of yellow journalism has the mass media clamored so stridently for the sitting president to make such a sizable blunder.
The hysteria spread through the right-wing media faster than the most virulent contagion.

Cuddling Victims

Ever the political opportunist, columnist Anne Coulter saw Ebola as an excellent opportunity to attack Obama (and liberals in general) in every possible direction. 

For example, she facetiously speculated that had Ebola been concentrated "in Finland and Norway -- certainly Israel! -- the president would have imposed a travel ban on Day One."  Because well, everybody knows Obama hates Israel and that's got to be mentioned in every one of Coulter's opinion pieces (rants).
It is clear that she could barely contain herself and threw in every possible illegitimate attack she could muster- no matter how unrelated.   

The real problem, according to the non-medical professional Coulter, was that Obama just didn't want to protect Americans. So, we must assume, he also hates America apparently.

As far as spending money on fighting Ebola on the ground- which the president chose to do- Coulter's response was predictably snide and characteristically obnoxious. Research on a cure, she wrote,  doesn't require "cuddling victims in their huts." 

Dying people in huts shouldn't need to be cuddled by American liberal doctors with guilt complexes. Africans with Ebola ought to suck it up. It's not really America's problem anyway, implies Ms.Coulter. 
In her distorted world, Obama was only interested in Africa because.. well, you know why. (wink wink)

She was only getting started. 

Not one Republican came out and publicly condemned Coulter even when she went on Fox News and explained how she would use the virus to teach naughty illegal immigrant children a lesson. She told host Sean Hannity.
“First thing I would do is infect every one of those kids with the ebola virus. The reason why people come to this country is because the government gives illegal immigrants free goodies like welfare.
That'll teach them a lesson they won't soon forget. 
In a decent world, remarks like those Coulter has made in the past would Have Ms.Coulter spending her retirement picking out feather-laden balls of tar from her shiny mane. 
Alas, we do not live in a decent world. (In light of her sterling judgment and impressive credentials, Donald Trump could even make Anne Coulter his chief White House advisor.)

In the competition to out-scare the American public and to make the president seem as incompetent as possible, the right-wing media took an early lead. Eventually, however, the politicians on the Right joined in and closed the loop.

When Republican Candidates Howled

Many of the most embarrassing figures came from the Republican candidates in the 2016 election. Republican Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, made himself into the national laughingstock when he quarantined a nurse, Kaci Hickox, who had recently returned from Africa. 
The woman was isolated in a plastic tent in a hospital parking lot in late autumn, despite the fact she had shown no symptoms and tested negative for the virus. 

When Nurse Hickox ultimately threatened to sue, Christie shrugged off the threat, saying 
“Whatever. Get in line. I’ve been sued lots of times before. Get in line. I’m happy to take it on.”
Despite what he said publicly, the tough-talking governor, when confronted with Hickok's attorney realized he was very likely to lose. Miraculously, after a second test, the mandatory quarantine policy was reviewed and relaxed. 

Later, Christie, in a presidential debate, would actually claim that Hickok was "showing symptoms." A remarkable feat since teams of doctors saw absolutely no signs and blood tests detected no traces of the virus. Christie never backed down from his position, no matter how ridiculous he looked.

And he was not alone his overwrought reactions. Let's say he made himself an easy target. At one point, the entire Republican Party seemed on the verge of losing its collective marbles.

Other presidential candidates- eager to show their leadership skills- were also on that same bandwagon. Rand PaulTed CruzPaul Ryan and Bobby Jindal all at one time suggested a ban on travel in and out of the country. 
Senator Rand claimed that Ebola was "a lot more transmissible" than officials were admitting. Of course, there was no actual data to back up that claim. 
He also warned that "the border with Mexico was not secure enough to keep infected individuals out," as if desperately ill (hopelessly lost) East Africans were attempting to slip unnoticed into Texas.  

Senator Cruz claimed that the Obama administration of "not treating it with the gravity it deserves." 
He told Austin, Texas, radio station KOKE-FM that unlike some international crises, where the administration sends people to brief lawmakers, "they're not telling Congress a whole lot more than what's being reported publicly in the news."
The two Senators clearly couldn't keep their narratives spliced together. 
In the first week of September 2014, only one month before all this out of control hysteria, House Republicans had decided to provide less than half of the $88 million funding that the White House had requested to fight Ebola. 

CDC Director Thomas Frieden said at the announcement of the decision that the epidemic was "spiraling out of control and needs immediate attention from lawmakers and officials around the world." 

Still Congress remained unable to address the situation. 

The Man Who Rejected the Hysteria

Thankfully, at least one man in Washington did not succumb to this mindless and frantic overreaction. One person ignored his critics' fearmongering and calls for the sealing off of the US from the rest of the planet. 
That person was the under-appreciated President Barack Obama. 

His reaction, based on the best medical advice available, was bold and decisive and it was perfectly rational. This was a crisis that had to be dealt with before it arrived and that meant focusing the world's efforts at the source. 
This was the best way- indeed the only way- to protect not just Americans but the world.

On Oct. 10, 2014, Congress finally released $750 million to allow Obama to implement his Ebola defense strategy.
Four congressional committees had permitted the administration to move the money, but had limited how much they could spend until officials provided more details about how they would protect U.S. troops from getting infected and their long-term strategy.
This appropriation from Defense funding  covered only six months of that operation. After that, Obama was advised to seeking somebody's dime.

Huffington Post explained that strategy like this:
...In his initial move to contain Ebola, President Obama sent in the U.S. military, an organization as ill equipped to deal with a pandemic disease as it was to deal with “nation-building” in Afghanistan or Iraq. He also called for the formation of medical “SWAT teams“ to fight Ebola in this country — not perhaps your typical image for responding to a disease, but one that fits this American moment to a T. And the Pentagon has already responded by organizing “a 30-person rapid-response team that could provide quick medical support to civilian healthcare workers if additional cases of the Ebola virus are diagnosed in the United States.”
The result? 
The epidemic was contained in a relatively short time and is today no longer out of control. Sadly this resolution took too long to save the roughly 5000 victims who died in 2014, (about 50% of those that were infected). 

It is true there are still flare-ups of the disease, but the reason for that is simple:  the underlying conditions  (poverty, poor health infrastructure) have remained largely unchanged and will require greater investment from developed countries.  

Last summer, Bernice Dahn, Liberia’s former Chief Medical Officer, told reporters that Liberia’s problematic healthcare system
was "not built to respond to infectious diseases." 
Before Ebola, for example, Liberia had a significant shortfall of medical personnel– only about 50 doctors, which was approximately one doctor per 100,000 persons.

It was clearly an epidemic waiting to happen and nobody seemed to care about the problem until it became a global threat. The conservative attitude,to paraphrase Coulter and the Fox News analysts, was that African nations ,like Liberia, were simply trying to America's "free stuff." 
Shame on those dying people!

The Lesson Not Learned

This embarrassing episode- for which, as far as I know, not one right wing media outlet or one Republican politician has apologized for- reveals a fundamental problem with the GOP and its propaganda agents.
It's a lesson the voting public need to take to heart come November.

Too often when it comes to threats to Americans, the talking heads of the GOP have shown themselves torn between two choices, doing something extremely stupid or excessive - like trying to shut down the entire country and quarantine people who aren't even ill- or doing nothing at all and waiting for the problem to resolve itself.
Or even wildly swinging from one to another.

None of this is very productive when time is of the essence. Nor  is it flattering to a nation that boasts of being "the last superpower." 
Let's face it, it is a disgrace.

Today Ebola no longer poses much of a threat to Americans. That might be a big disappointment to people like Anne Coulter but for the rest of humanity, we have one reason to breath more comfortably.
There is, however, a new dangerous disease on the horizon.
The Zika virus.

And we are watching exactly the same scenario unfold all over again. At this moment, this disgusting political game is still in its opening stages.

Zika and The Mass Evacuation of Washington

Last week, House Democrats made some noise about a nifty scheduling arrangement cooked up by their fellow Republicans. It consists of three weeks on and one week off. Basically getting paid the full amount for a third less effort. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pointed out to reporters:
"It's very, very hard to get anything done if you are a drive-by Congress...We're barely here."
Any legislative or budgetary work on the table would just have to wait until after their break.  As ABC News reported:
Congress accomplished relatively little in a short work period, missing deadlines on the budget and on helping Puerto Rico with its financial crisis as lawmakers began a weeklong break.
Another item on the forlorn "to-do" list was also mentioned in the article. One of those things the Congress cast aside was a White House billion dollar request for emergency funding to fight Zika. 
Like the Supreme Court nominee, they didn't approve, they didn't reject, they simply ignored their duties.

On Friday, as Congressional members were packing their bags, and arranging first-class flights, something happened that probably didn't get very much of their short-duration attention. 

True, the victim had been traveling to areas where Zika was prevalent, but that's only half of the story.

A Storm on the Horizon?

We have, for some time now, all been increasingly ominous rumblings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Just last month, officials from the organization said something rather startling: 
"Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought."
The medical authorities tell us that virus has been linked to a broader array of birth defects throughout a longer period of pregnancy, including premature birth and blindness in addition to the smaller brain size caused by microcephaly. 

Just yesterday, the BBC reported that scientists in Brazil studying cases there are now saying that the virus could be more dangerous than first thought. The virus affects the babies of up to a fifth of infected pregnant women.

Early analysis of patients suggests that 1% of women who have had Zika during pregnancy will have a child with microcephaly. However, as many as 20% of Zika-affected pregnancies will result "in a range of other forms of brain damage to the baby in the womb."
A separate study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, said that "29% of scans showed abnormalities in babies in the womb, including growth restrictions, in women infected with Zika".
Authors of that study write:
"Our findings are worrisome because 29% of ultrasonograms showed abnormalities, including intrauterine growth restrictions and foetal death, in women with positive Zika infection."
In addition, (as if that was enough) other research has suggested that Zika could also be responsible for a neurological disorder, Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) in infected adult patients.
*   *   *
Ebola was a horrifying and dread-inspiring disease. It was lethal and spread through immediate contact with victims. However in some ways, Zika is crueler and more dangerous because of its twin vectors.

Initially, it was thought to be spread only by the mosquito, however, as more information became available, doctors found it could also be transmitted through sexual contact. 

As summer approaches, officials are saying bluntly that time is running out. They warn that "mosquito eradication efforts, lab tests, and vaccine research may not be able to catch up." 
At this time, there is no vaccine or drug treatment.

There have already been 346 confirmed cases of Zika in the continental United States. Those patients had all traveled to Zika-prone countries.   Of those, 32 were in pregnant women, and seven were sexually transmitted.

One more thing to consider. Zika no longer an "over there" disease. It can be found in our own "backyard."
USAToday reported recently:
In Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa, the virus is now being transmitted locally. Of the 354 cases in the territories, only three are travel-related, and 37 involved pregnant women.
It's hard to get your head around. Imagine a virus that can be passed along both like malaria and a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) but which causes birth defects worse than thalidomide or paralysis like polio. 
With so little actually known about the virus (and with what doctors do know frightening), it's all too easy for the public to panic. 

One thing is perfectly clear. It's not a disease any sane person would take lightly. 

Indifferent and Uninterested, For Now

However, strangely enough, the Republican response to date has been somewhat indifferent and uninterested. That's quite a contrast from the "dark" days of Ebola when right wingers were nearly ready to declare martial law.

On 18 Feb 2016, President Obama requested $1.8 billion dollars in emergency funding from Republican-controlled Congress in order to combat the Zika virus. The response was politely called "lukewarm." 

Mr. Obama’s request to Congress came as the White House was trying to strike a balance between being responsive to the outbreak and not provoking alarm.
Almost four months have passed since this request and Congress has still failed to act. Four months since the World Health Organization declared Zika to be "a global emergency." WHO director general Margaret Chan said that outbreaks in South America  and other regions constitute "a public health emergency of international concern."

Not for the unconcerned Republican-controlled US Congress.  
The august representatives of the American people have no feelings of guilt or moral scruple as they cut back on their work schedules so they can spend more time away from their jobs.

Lawmakers and bean counters balked at Obama's request, insisting that there was already plenty of money from other sources to cover the costs. Where did that funding come from? 

From Obama's successful campaign to halt Ebola in its tracks. (They didn't want to advertise that success too much. In their world, Obama can do nothing right.)

The White House has already transferred almost $600 million in previously appropriated money to the Zika fight and would have little choice but to shift more if Congress remains gridlocked. But the administration says new funding is urgently needed to control the mosquitoes that spread the virus, manufacture vaccines once they are developed and produce more accurate testing for Zika.
Getting the funding to combat Zika now is not an impossible feat. There's still hope.
Senate Republicans may succeed in attaching a smaller Zika package to an upcoming funding bill, and House Republicans are considering adding an even smaller measure to a spending bill next month.
Don't bet your bottom dollar on that happening.
*   *   *
In theory, the Republican Party should have some very good reasons to be all over this. Firstly, it would be a great opportunity to show leadership after their Ebola fiasco. Secondly, the Republican platform has claimed to be unconditionally pro-life and that it's war against abortion has been all about protecting the unborn, (and not at all about denying women the right to manage their own bodies.) 
There are also political ramifications to any outbreak which could directly affect Republican voters.

The first region of the nation likely to detect the spread of the virus will be the Red states in the US south.
If there is a crisis, then the potential geographic range of the mosquitoes transmitting the virus will probably spread northward over the summer. (However, it's worth noting that the species can already be found "all or part of 30 states.") 

So what could account for the lack of interest?

Our Unfixable Congress

In a smoothly running Congress, it would be a relatively simple. There'd be a call to order, lawmakers would make boring speeches, a bill would be drafted, they'd negotiate, and add heaps of pork, and then action would finally be taken. It wouldn't take four months. It would at the most take a week or two. 

However, as anybody will tell you, Congress is utterly broken. Everybody knows it but nobody on the right seems willing to vote accordingly.

A mere 17% of the American public approves of the job Congress is doing (or not doing), according to the latest Gallup poll. And when asked what would be the most important thing to do to "fix" Congress the majority of respondents said, "replace all members and get all new people." 
"New" doesn't mean "better" and the Tea Party voters danced like drunken sailors at the results of the 2010 mid-terms. They never understood - and most even today refused to acknowledge- that they replaced bad with worse.

Obama's approval ratings, on the other hand, hold strong with a 34-percentage-point edge over Congress thus far in 2016. Even with that public support, the president cannot act without a responsible Congress willing to participate in the legislative process.

Given the intransigence of the Tea Party to allowing the president anything at all, no matter how imperative, it is hard to see how Republicans in both the House or the Senate will be able to approve any spending on Zika (or anything for that matter.) 

Tea Party Conservatives like Senator Cruz have eagerly gone on the record that they would prefer to close down the government rather than allow "reckless" government spending. Actually, as far as Cruz is concerned, any excuse will do.

Zika and Ted Cruz's Anti-Abortion Crusade

On top of all that,  conservative legislatures in those states, as we all know, have been intent on closing Planned Parenthood clinics in their crusade against abortion.
Ted Cruz, who called Planned Parenthood a “national criminal enterprise committing multiple felonies" was just last August prepared to close down the entire US government in order to defund the organization. 

In fact, he launched an unsuccessful effort to get pastors to tell their congregations to call their members of Congress and insist that Republicans use the federal budget to defund Planned Parenthood. 

While Cruz has to date been thwarted on a federal level, it's a different story on a state level. Twenty-three Planned Parenthood centers were closed in 2015 in various states.

There is just one problem with Cruz's crusade. Planned Parenthood is much more than an abortion clinic. It also provides health screenings for women of limited means.and provides prenatal services and adoption referrals.
In this way, early detection of the Zika virus in the poor communities may be much harder to track, thanks largely to misplaced priorities in those Red states. 

Even when obstetricians have determined in utero that the Zika virus has caused horrific mental and physical birth defects, the mother would have no option but to carry the child to full term in those states with so-called Personhood laws which criminalize abortion without exception.

Then there's also the lack of affordable medical coverage in some of the Red States whose governors nixed expanding Obamacare.

The Disturbing Pattern Right Under Our Noses

Attempting to explain the complicated motives of politicians is never easy. In this case, when Republicans have done so little for so long, it's next to impossible.

With so much at stake, two question need to be asked:
Why would Congress take such a risk with the lives of Americans citizens and their children? If that means nothing, then why would they take such a risk politically?

One plausible reason for the peculiarly sedate response from the GOP on the Zika issue is that they must see some advantage in delaying action and postponing funding as long as possible. 

They could very well be betting that, if Zika does get out of control, voters will be so angry that they believe Fox News when Anne Coulter or Sean Hannity or whoever invents a way to put the entire blame on Obama. 

In that scenario, the waves of hysteria that came during the Ebola crisis will be nothing compared to the Zika epidemic.  Every case will receive reality-tv coverage and candidates will be falling all over themselves to prove to voters that they could have done better than Obama. 

Does that seem too cynical? Perhaps. 
But then again, just remember how then-candidate Mitt Romney smirked so openly on the night of the Benghazi attack and how Benghazi Congressional Investigations have been so crudely used to go after the former Secretary of State. 
In the end, it was Congress itself that contributed (at least, in part) to the tragedy in Libya. 

An article in The Hill in 2012 noted that House Republicans have attempted "to cut hundreds of millions of dollars slated for security at U.S. embassies and consulates since gaining control of the House in 2011."

When the tragedy happened, Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman, Charles Schumer (N.Y.) remarked:
“This is a disturbing example of the Republicans’ meat-ax approach to cutting every aspect of the government, no matter how essential.”
That factor was largely forgotten by the time Congress decided to open an investigation on the matter. It provided the Republicans with a tool to both deflect criticism and to harass/blame/hold accountable Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
That investigation has led nowhere and cost taxpayers something around $5 million.  In terms of political publicity - at least for conservatives- was astounding. 
(Last January, Candidate Cruz weirdly suggested that Hillary be spanked for telling lies. That's rich, considering how many lies Cruz has been caught it, even on Fox News. )

In fact, Schumer's analysis was spot on. 
Prior to Hurricane Karina, Bush budget-cutting agenda would later be cited as one factor for the administration's slow response. Even though Joe Allbaugh, the FEMA director before Katrina, in 2001 cited a hurricane calamity in New Orleans one of the top three likely disasters facing the country.
There was plenty of time to do something, yet nothing was done.

Since 2012, it has become a standard approach from the Republican-dominated Congress to slash and burn the budget and then point fingers when things inevitably spin out of control. 

On cue, the Fox News players then enthusiastically join in on the stage performance, attempting to confuse their easily-enraged and decidedly-uninformed audiences. Hysteria is just another tool to deflect criticism, to escape accountability, to inflame and terrify conservative voters. 

And why shouldn't theRepublicans in Congress keep playing the same trick on the American public?  It's been so successful in the past. Nobody seems to notice it happening again and again.

Of course, this time, the victims of this GOP malpractice might just turn out to be the unborn babies they claim to want to protect from those selfish, incorrigible and inhumane liberals with their agendas.