Editor’s Note: Laurie Garrett is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Congress' partisan gridlock behind failure to pass bill that would have funded health response very real Zika threat
Laurie Garrett: There are parallels to ignored warnings of 9-11, anthrax attacks, when government failed Americans
Garrett: If GOP in control of Congress wanted to protect Americans, they would have given Dems a clean bill to pass
Wednesday night, Congress offered the nation a spectacle of bipartisan blame – a crass betrayal of the American public’s trust in government – as it forced the collapse of a bill that would have funded the US health response to Zika. The funding was nested within H.R.2577 - Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017.
In truth, the American people have long rated the two houses of Congress as among the least-trusted institutions in the United States, and politicians rank somewhere close to vermin. But this in no cover for the current outrage.
The United States is in the grips of a real and present danger with Zika – not a theoretical threat from afar – with 2,721 cases of confirmed infection, 35 of them acquired from local mosquitoes, 1,595 of them pregnant women, and 16 babies born to date in the mainland United States and Puerto Rico with microcephaly brain malformations.
Wednesday night as members of Congress held press conferences, denouncing one another for failing to pass a $1.1 billion plan to fund Zika virus control and research, the city of New York tested the two beams of light that arise dramatically from ground zero every September 11, symbolizing the destroyed World Trade Center towers.
Zika virus outbreak
There is an instructive connection between a nerve cell-assaulting virus and al Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11: They both represent trust, or the lack thereof, with violation of duty to the American people.
As the 9/11 Commission report detailed, agencies across the length and breadth of the government had warnings, knew they were ill-prepared for physical and biological attacks, and yet collectively shrugged until part of the Pentagon, Flight 93 and two of the largest buildings in America were laid to waste, claiming nearly 3,000 lives, shattering the country’s sense of national security and permanently altering America’s relationship with the rest of the world.
I heard the first hijacked passenger jet smash into the north tower on September 11, and saw the second jet slice through the 90-story levels of the south tower. For eight years I documented the details of New York’s reaction and recovery, including the subsequent anthrax mailings to journalists and politicians, as well as case after case in which the public’s trust in government and so-called experts – scientists, pundits, newspaper columnists, law enforcement officials – was violated. I wrote a book about it.
Warnings had long been sounded about bioterrorism, meeting similar shrugs of complacency from government. When anthrax spores were released a month after the 9/11 horror from envelopes mailed to newsrooms and on Capitol Hill, terror gripped America, and the people turned their trusting eyes to Washington assuming somebody was in charge, knew how to tackle the scary bacteria, and would protect the people.
Instead, government officials scrambled to save themselves, shutting down the House of Representatives, and failed to ask about the employees of the United States Postal Service and their clients, offering no protection to them until District of Columbia postal workers Thomas Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen gasped their final breaths, their lungs destroyed as surely as the twin towers by a terrorist assault.
As I looked from my living room Wednesday night at the twin tower-symbolizing light beams, I wondered whether anything in American government has substantively changed since 9/11. Yes, billions of dollars have been spent on homeland security and trillions on military interventions against foes: al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab and a mounting list of organizations hell-bent on wreaking havoc, sowing terror and devastating “infidels.”
But the Zika catastrophe illustrates how little has truly improved. American political leaders have weighed the threat of hundreds, even thousands of babies being born with squashed skulls and brain damage, of adults paralyzed by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, of the mosquito-carried virus morphing into a sexually transmitted one, and cynically concluded that the Zika risk constitutes an opportunity to attack Planned Parenthood, legalize the hoisting of Confederate flags in military cemeteries, weaken Environmental Protection Agency regulation of pesticides and demean “big government.”
Scientists have been forced to muddle through, searching for a vaccine, treatments, diagnostic tools and basic comprehension of the mysterious virus – all by robbing other disease-research budgets, in hopes of congressional passage of reimbursing funding and $230 million for the National Institutes of Health, which would have been included in this failed bill.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has hit the point where juggling money from one disease-fighting budget to Zika won’t work anymore: All money lines are tapped out.
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According to a Pew Poll conducted last fall, three-quarters of Americans think, “Most elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s,” and only 19% say they trust the government most of the time. Only 27% of Americans have a positive view of Congress, an enormous drop from the 65% approval Capitol Hill politicians enjoyed in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks.
The major favorability nosedive began in 2011, with trust in political leaders plummeting 20 points in four years. That’s when the tea party faction of the GOP swept seats in both houses in the 2010 midterm elections, bringing new voices and anger to Capitol Hill.
Among their chief targets were President Barack Obama, the overall federal budget, abortion and the Affordable Care Act, also labeled Obamacare. The tea party raised the volume in partisan debate, blocked the entire United States budget process, pushed sequestration and added riders onto all sorts of bills – hidden bits of legislation aimed at shutting down abortion services, family planning, and other of their pet peeves across America.
The tea party may no longer be a force but its leaders and enablers, such as Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Mitch McConnell, control Capitol Hill. If these two individuals wanted to see American fetuses protected from the brain-savaging impact of the Zika virus, they could make the funding bill go through: All they would have to do is put a clean bill, stripped of all riders, on the floor for a vote and an overwhelming majority of the House and Senate would approve $1.1 billion in emergency funds to fight Zika. The GOP could still claim victory, having forced Democrats to settle for $800 million less than the White House requested in February.
The drain of money from other research efforts at the NIH and disease-fighting efforts at the CDC would be plugged, the nation would be safer, and fewer American babies would be born deaf, blind, thrashing in agonizing pain, lacking enormous parts of their brains or worse – miscarried, not born at all.
Before 9/11 more than two-thirds of the American people trusted government, and believed that political leaders of both parties shared commitment to defending the nation’s security against al Qaeda, terrorists, epidemics, plagues and natural disasters. That trust has been violated, repeatedly. And Wednesday it was violated yet again.
When the 9/11 beams officially rise from ground zero, the traditional bagpipes play homages to the dead and the names of al Qaeda’s victims are read this Sunday, I will be revisiting painful memories of 15 years ago, along with fresh anger directed at all those in Congress who believe they have a right to betray the American people.