Washington, D.C., has a funny habit of using an emergency as an excuse to spend more money while also growing the size and power of government. This often results in more bloated bureaucracy and wasted tax dollars. The president’s Zika request may be an example of this. He recently asked Congress for $1.9 billion to fight the Zika Virus. Yes, the Zika outbreak is a serious concern. But $1.9 billion is a lot of money. His request is also far too broad and could in fact allow him to direct money to programs and activities that have nothing to do with Zika.
But in looking at the problem, it’s important to recognize the challenge that we face. The Zika virus is rapidly spreading throughout Central and South America and other undeveloped parts of the world. And the virus has been linked to devastating physical and neurological defects in unborn children. It’s indisputable that we need to act quickly to stop the disease.
What is less certain is whether allocating new funding is the best approach. Some public emergencies may require additional spending, and some of them may not. And sometimes we just need creative thinking.
Just over a year ago, in response to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, Congress approved $5.4 billion to fight Ebola. At the time, there was near universal agreement that the funds were needed to stop the deadly outbreak from spreading to the United States. The good news is that it worked. By the summer of 2015, Ebola cases began dropping rapidly, several countries were declared Ebola free and the effort transitioned to providing support for local health systems to monitor and contain future outbreaks. The quick success of the Ebola effort was a credit to the U.S. military and the selfless efforts of health workers and volunteers both in the U.S. and on location in the affected areas.
The other good news is that the quick results mean we have money that has not been expended. The latest reports show that there is currently around $2.7 billion in unused and unclaimed Ebola funding spread across the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Which is why, on Feb. 3, I introduced the Zika Response and Safety Act. The bill allows the relevant government agencies to use previously allocated but unspent Ebola funding to combat Zika. Under my bill, agencies decide how to best utilize the remaining funding between the two diseases, allowing some of our nation’s best health specialists to move forward immediately with essential research and preventative measures. This is a common sense and fiscally responsible approach during a time of uncertainty.
It’s also important to note that the congressional process of appropriating new funds can be very time consuming. With a crisis like Zika, time is of the essence. Using already existing funds would allow for an immediate response.
A few days ago, Utah reported its first case of the Zika virus. For the sake of our state, as well as the rest of the nation, I hope that Congress will act quickly to pass my Zika Response and Safety Act. It’s the best solution to the immediate challenge. It is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.
Chris Stewart is Utah's 2nd District congressman.