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Senator Lankford Condemns Senate Failure to Find $1 Billion in a $4 Trillion Budget to Pay for “Emergency”

WASHINGTON, DC – Yesterday, the Senate took a step forward to pass legislation regarding the Zika virus that will ultimately add $1.1 billion to the national debt, but did so without a serious attempt to find a reasonable pay-for. The amendment, which seeks to provide funding to combat the spread of the Zika virus through emergency spending, will be added to Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill being debated in the Senate this week.

In an effort to provide an offset to save the American taxpayer more than $1.1 billion, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) introduced an amendment, this week, to address the Zika virus through a transfer of unobligated existing funds, rather than spending new money. Specifically, the amendment would have provided the needed flexibility to respond to the Zika virus by authorizing the Department of State, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to transfer unobligated funds from FY15 and earlier budgets to prevent, prepare for, or respond to the Zika virus – but not before the Administration explains how exactly it plans to use the funds. HHS, State, and USAID currently have more than $80 billion in funds which were appropriated in previous fiscal years but have not yet been spent. The Lankford amendment is a common-sense solution to provide funding for a serious problem without appropriating a dime in new money.

On May 12, Senator Lankford delivered a speech on the Senate floor to urge Congress to prioritize spending with already-appropriated funding for a Zika response. Lankford also wrote an op-ed on May 10 about the importance of prioritizing spending.

“America should address the Zika virus, but there is absolutely no reason to spend a billion dollars in new federal funding to address it when there is unused and unobligated money in the budgets of several agencies,” said Lankford. “The leading proposals to address the spread of Zika are a misuse of taxpayer money. The State Department and USAID already have broad authority to reassign funds previously appropriated under bilateral assistance for Zika, but have refused to do so. Just because Zika poses a threat to U.S. national security interests does not mean that we should abandon all sense of fiscal responsibility. We must prioritize funding accordingly.”

There is precedent for reprogramming these types of funds and this Administration has even taken advantage of that existing authority in the past. In March, President Obama took $500 million from an account which Congress provided explicit authority to be used to transfer funds to combat infectious diseases, and instead reprogrammed it to the Green Climate Fund. In 2009, the Obama administration requested, and was granted, a transfer of funds for HHS to deal with the H1N1 virus. The Obama administration has already used about $600 million for emergency supplemental for Ebola research and protection, this year, and transferred that to respond to Zika already. Lankford is challenging Congress to force the Obama administration to use unobligated funds and funds that have already been appropriated for research and protection from infectious diseases, rather than new spending.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of State, and International Assistance Programs retained more than $86 billion in unobligated funds at the beginning of this fiscal year, which started October 1, 2015. These same accounts are expected to contain $79 billion on September 30, 2016.

Lankford’s Zika Response Amendment would:

  • Save the federal government more than $1 billion, when compared to the “compromise” alternative, by providing State, HHS, and USAID flexibility to use unobligated funds from prior fiscal years to address the Zika virus;
  • Prior to the transfer or reprogramming of funds to address Zika, require the Administration to submit a detailed spending plan to Congress that specifies the use of such funds;
  • As part of the spending plan, require an assessment of other countries’ resources and willingness to use their own resources to combat Zika in conjunction with any U.S. foreign assistance;
  • Require a follow-up report that assesses a full accounting of funds expended to address Zika and how it matches up with the original spending plan required above.