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Senator Lankford Urges Congress to Prioritize Funding to Address Zika

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WASHINGTON, DC– Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today delivered a speech on the Senate floor on the importance of a US response to the Zika virus and to urge Congress to prioritize spending with already-appropriated funding. Specifically, Lankford calls for the Senate to support a transfer of funds, rather than spending new money to proactively address the spread of the virus. 

On Tuesday, Lankford published an op-ed in The Hill concerning emergency funding and to re-evaluate how the federal government spends money with $19 trillion of debt. 


I want to spend a couple moments talking about the Zika virus and our response to it from Congress. There has been a lot of conversation about the Zika virus, both in the media, multiple of our committees. For months, actually. This is not a new issue that has been brought up. This is an existing issue. The spread of the Zika virus is moving across our hemisphere and it’s rapidly spreading in multiple countries to the south of us. It’s moving towards the United States. As most of you know, the Zika virus is carried by a mosquito, a particular type of mosquito. Not all mosquitoes can transmit the Zika virus, but they pick up this particular type of mosquito and can carry the virus from one person that the Zika virus is in their blood, it gets in the mosquito, the mosquito bites someone else and transfers it. The interesting thing, I think, most people don’t realize is that the Zika virus for most individuals is not all that difficult or painful to be able to work through. 

The CDC, in their own materials that they have now put out in their response to the Zika virus, tries to list out the symptoms of Zika, and what it really means for most individuals. For most individuals, it is something that they will have for a few days, and they said for many individuals, they don’t even know that they have it. It’s something similar to having a cold where they have some muscle pain and a headache. They may have a fever or a rash, but it goes away after a few days, and they are then immune to it for the rest of their life. In fact, the CDC says the treatment that they list for the Zika virus, if you have it; obviously, they always suggest that you check in with your doctor. But, they said the common treatment from CDC is get plenty of rest, drink fluids and take Tylenol. Not something that most people should be afraid of unless you’re pregnant. And the risk of birth defects is astronomical.

Not everyone who is pregnant gets the Zika virus also has birth defects, but those that have, it can be very, very serious. This is to be taken serious, but it’s not a new issue as well. The Zika virus has been known to be around since the 1950’s. It’s moved through multiple different countries and multiple different regions. It’s in the United States, although we have yet to have a single case in the United States that originated in the United States. These are individuals that traveled to other countries south of us, in Central America or in South America, picked up the virus there or in Puerto Rico or in some of the other areas of the Caribbean and then have come back to the United States. But, it is yet to have a transfer that we know of from any individual within the United States to another person in the United States. Again, that doesn’t belittle the issue, but I want to be able to put it in the context of where we are. We are at the early stages of dealing with this as United States citizens. In Puerto Rico and other areas, it is very advanced and there are hundreds of cases that are there. So now the determination is what do we do? 

The CDC has already stepped up and trying to intervene and try to find ways to be able to not only develop a vaccine for it, which they feel confident they can do. I met with the director of the CDC not long ago. He feels very confident they will be able to have a vaccine within a couple of years, but then we have a couple of years that we’re dealing with in the process. Just the development of the vaccine and then the distribution of that vaccine. The main thing that can be done right now is actually putting down mosquito populations. It is getting into areas where there is rapid advancement of mosquitoes and actually putting pesticides in those areas to greatly diminish the population of mosquitoes. It’s developing better testing for Zika. It’s getting out the opportunity in different health departments around the country to say: how are we going to evaluate this, and how do we know if someone just has a fever and a rash, if that’s something else related to heat or something related to Zika? So the CDC is engaging in all of those things.

In the middle of all this, the White House has requested almost $2 billion in what they’re calling an emergency request for Zika. Now, I do believe there should be a response to Zika, and we should aggressively lean in. The last thing we should do is sit around and wait until Zika virus is spreading across the United States and affects many of these pregnant moms that are out there and we have birth defects in the days ahead because of our inactivity. But the almost $2 billion in emergency request is interesting to me because a lot of it they haven’t given us great detail on it of really what all that will engage. They have said they need this large amount of money. I have to tell you, I’m a little bit skeptical when anyone comes and says it’s an emergency, I need $2 billion, and I’ll tell you what it’s for later. We went through this with Ebola funding where there was a $5 billion request for Ebola funding. Two years later, they spent about $2.5 billion of that.

Recently, the administration transferred half-a-billion-dollars of that funding for Ebola into the treatment and discovery for Zika. So they have already reprogrammed some of that money and started to be able to move it over. So I would ask just a couple of things of this body, as we consider how we’re going to handle Zika. One is treat it seriously. Although for most people it’s not a serious issue. If you’re pregnant, it is serious. We should treat it seriously. The second thing, we should do this appropriation in the normal appropriations process. I do not think we need to have additional debt spending. We can reprogram existing funds to be able to deal with this. And we also need real detail of how this money is going to be spent so that we don’t allocate dollars and then find out later how they were going to be spent. We have a responsibility as Congress to know how American tax dollars are being spent, and I think my skepticism is justified in this.

So let me give you just a quick idea. Right now, if we’re going to deal with actually funding this area, which I believe we should, then we should begin with allowing the Department of State and HHS and USAID to have transfer authority within their existing accounts to be able to address this. These three agencies currently have $86 billion in what they call unobligated balances from previous years, that they already have right now—$86 billion. With this much money lying around, there is absolutely no need to ask the American people to pay an additional billion dollars on top of the already obligated and over obligated and bloated budget. Transfer authority I would ask for would be accompanied by a comprehensive spin plan that requires the administration to detail exactly how it plans to use these funds. Then, report out any obligations to match up with the original spending plan.

Before we write a blank check to the administration, I believe the American people should actually know how this is being spent. Now, there are some individuals that would say this is an emergency. We just need to add a billion dollars more in debt and figure out how to pay for it later. I would disagree. We have transfer authority, and this is not new. In fact, if you go back to 2009, President Obama requested transfer authority to HHS to deal with the H1N1 virus. Remember when the big panic was about swine flu and H1N1 in 2009? We as a nation stood up and addressed these issues. At that time the president made a very specific request for transfer authority to deal with this. That is not any different than what I’m saying is right now. I don’t understand how this is different than how we were dealing with H1N1. Right now, we have to have additional spending on top of everything else, but in 2009, it was entirely appropriate to be able to reprogram funds. Again, this is not new. As I have mentioned before for Ebola emergency supplemental, the president has already taken about $600 million from Ebola and transferred that over to Zika already.

In March, it’s interesting to note President Obama reprogrammed $500 million from the economic support fund which is designated by Congress to go to combat infectious diseases. He took $500 million from the funds to combat infectious diseases and instead reprogrammed it over for the Green Climate Fund. So he took half a billion dollars from the infectious diseases account and used it instead for the Green Climate Fund internationally. He’s done this before. In fact, it was just days ago that the president took $8 million out of a different account and reprogrammed it to purchase almost $9 million of heavy water from Iran. 

This body of all bodies has the responsibility to be able to not only deal with the health emergencies that are happening around the world but also the fiscal issues that we have in our nation. We can do both. There is no reason to do debt spending when the money is there right now to be reprogrammed so we do not have to break the budget caps, and we do not have to accelerate into other areas of spending just to do what is our responsibility. We should do the responsible thing in dealing with Zika. We should also do the responsibility that we have to take care of the American taxpayer at the same time. 

 With that Mr. President, I yield back.