Should Federal Agencies Stop Researching Drunk Birds to Fund the Zika Response?

A municipal health worker sprays insecticide to kill Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which spread the Zika virus, in Campina Grande, Brazil. A municipal health worker sprays insecticide to kill Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which spread the Zika virus, in Campina Grande, Brazil. Felipe Dana / AP

For most Republicans in Congress, the debate over funding the research into and prevention of the spread of the Zika virus is a standard issue divide over federal spending, offsets and balanced budgets.

For Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., however, the clash playing out this week in both chambers represents something broader, and an opportunity to fix what he sees as a broken system. Flake has said there is not nearly enough oversight of how the federal science community spends its research dollars, arguing agencies like the National Institutes of Health would be better prepared to deal with emergencies like Zika if they were not wasting money on asinine studies.

“The White House has just asked Congress to appropriate $1.9 billion in emergency off-budget spending to tackle the latest crisis, Zika,” Flake said last week on the Senate floor. “Now I believe we do need to find a solution and a vaccine for the Zika virus, but we ought to look hard at the other things these agencies are spending money [on] as we talk about more money for these research projects.”

Flake unveiled during his speech his report “20 Questions: Government Studies That Will Leave You Scratching Your Head,” which highlights research the senator said does little to advance federal priorities. Studies such as where on the human body it hurts the most to get stung by a bee and whether birds slur while chirping after consuming alcohol -- supported by NIH and the National Science Foundation -- lead to agencies “wasting money” and “missing opportunities,” he said. All told, Flake identified $35 million disbursed on projects “that could have been better spent researching treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and viral infections such as Zika and Ebola.”

Flake also introduced the Federal Research Transparency and Accountability Act, which the senator said would ensure research funding went toward “transformative science while rooting out unnecessary spending on lower priority projects.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last week it was “pretty pathetic” for Flake to play politics with a national emergency, as the Republican lawmaker was usually “the kind of person [the administration] would rely on” to rise above the fray in dire situations. 

While Flake timed his report to highlight the issue in advance of the Zika spending fight, the $35 million he identified pales in comparison to the $1.9 billion the Obama administration requested in emergency appropriations in February. The White House said the funds would assist the Departments of Health and Human Services and State to prevent the spread of and respond to Zika, speed research and procurement of a vaccine and other medicines, provide emergency funds to territories such as Puerto Rico and boost foreign aid to Zika-affected countries.

Absent congressional action, federal agencies have been forced to reprogram existing funds -- such as the nearly $600 million from the emergency Ebola account -- to address the new crisis. The White House’s Earnest said on Monday this amounted to “essentially the bureaucratic equivalent of digging through the sofa cushions to try to come up with the necessary money.”

Congress appears unlikely to grant Obama’s entire wish list, with the Senate on Tuesday rejecting a proposal from Florida Sens. Bill Nelson, D, and Marco Rubio, R, to fund the full request. The upper chamber instead advanced a smaller, $1.1 billion agreement ironed out by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash, and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

One major difference in the two bills is the Nelson-Rubio package fully replenishes the Ebola account, while the Blunt-Murray measure only pays back $88 million. Citing renewed outbreaks in West Africa, the Obama administration on Tuesday said the Ebola funds “must be replenished to keep the disease from threatening our shores again.”

The larger bill would have provided $743 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for boosting surveillance and state and local laboratory capacity, compared to $449 million included in the measure the Senate approved. It would have given $77 million more to NIH -- which is still researching the effects of Zika, in addition to developing treatments and a vaccine -- than the passed bill, and doubled the $126 million for U.S. territories. The Florida lawmakers proposed giving $10 million to the Food and Drug Administration, while the Senate ultimately approved no emergency funds for the agency. Their measure also would have provided more than $100 million on top of the Blunt-Murray bill for State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

House Republicans, meanwhile, have blasted the White House for failing to provide more specifics on how exactly agencies would spend the emergency funds the administration requested. Without that information, the leadership and appropriators have said, Congress will be forced to wait until it passes fiscal 2017 spending bills to provide the funding -- meaning agencies like CDC, NIH and USAID would have to wait until October to see their new funds. 

In the interim, Republicans have put forward a $622 million bill using more money from the Ebola account and other existing HHS appropriations. The bill is about one-third of the administration’s request, with CDC taking the biggest hit. The agency would receive just $170 million under the House plan. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said lawmakers in his party have “made our own funding determinations, using what information is available and through discussions with federal agencies, to craft a proposal to fight the spread of this damaging disease.”

The White House quickly issued a veto threat on Tuesday, calling the House proposal “woefully inadequate.” It also criticized a mandate the money be spent only in fiscal 2016, as CDC has predicted the effects of the outbreak to ramp up in the summer months and be felt beyond September.

While the House is scheduled to take up its Zika bill as soon as Wednesday, the White House is not expecting lawmakers to address the situation any time soon in a way administration officials view as serious.

“Look, is it going to require the onset of that emergency before Republicans act?” Earnest asked on Monday. “I sure hope not, but that's the direction it seems to be trending.”

As for Flake, the senator crusading for strictly “transformative” scientific research? He was one of 29 senators voting against the emergency funding, saying the spending must be offset. 

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