A Republican senator is urging his colleagues to hold up the $1 billion the White House has requested to combat the Ebola virus in part because the plan “focuses on Africa.”
“I ask you to oppose fully allowing the additional $1 billion in reprogramming requests until previously requested additional information is available for members of Congress to be fully briefed,” Louisiana Senator David Vitter wrote in a letter to members of the Senate Appropriations and Armed Services committees. The $1 billion that the administration has requested would be redirected from funds from the war operations budget to pay for the construction of medical facilities, supply distribution, medical training and for military and civilian personnel. Most of the money has been held up for nearly a month, as Republicans on key committees demand more details from the administration.
While Vitter criticized Obama for not fully presenting a plan, he apparently knows enough about it to be concerned that it “focuses on Africa, and largely ignores our own borders.” Vitter wants the United States to bar noncitizens traveling from countries affected by Ebola from entering the country.
While Congress delays, world leaders are pleading for assistance. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Thursday that twenty times more aid was needed in West Africa to fight the epidemic. Speaking at the same World Bank conference, the director of the Centers for Disease Control called for swift action. “Speed is the most important variable here,” Thomas Frieden said. “This is controllable, and this was preventable. It’s preventable by investing in core public health services.”
Senator Chris Murphy, in an interview on MSNBC on Thursday morning, called the delay in Congress “unconscionable.” He said the committees should release the full funds this week. Murphy acknowledged that some of the questions committee members have about the administration’s plan are “legitimate,” but noted that his colleagues only selectively care about missing details.
“In contrast to the lack of questions we asked when we made a decision to get involved in a war in the Middle East that’s going to cost us $10 billion a year, we seem to have a different level of inspection when it comes to questions being asked about money that’s going to protect the United States from a very real and very present threat of Ebola,” Murphy said.
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Many lawmakers (and the media) are in a frenzy about the prospect of Ebola spreading through the United States, but there’s a conspicuous lack of urgency when it comes to doing more to treat the epidemic where it’s already having a devastating effect. Members of Congress have been far quicker to criticize the president for inaction than their colleagues. On Thursday, twenty-six lawmakers wrote to Obama asking him to “take aggressive action to combat and prevent the spread of this disease in the United States,” specifically by banning travel to the US by citizens of affected countries. Meanwhile, the congressional committees that have to approve the redirected funds have blocked most of it until they get a more detailed plan from the administration.
Pentagon officials will brief congressional staff this week, so it’s possible the funds could be approved within days. But it’s also possible that the details of the aid plan will only spur further obstruction from members who want a plan more focused on turning the United States into a fortress than treating the crisis at its heart. (Read Jonathan Cohn for more on why, from a public health perspective, the focus should be on West Africa.)
There are valid concerns about militarizing the response to Ebola. But that isn’t what’s driving criticism from people like Vitter who believe the plan “focuses on Africa” too much. Furthermore, the money held up in Congress would also fund civilian assistance. Even the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has acknowledged that the scale of the crisis and the lack of basic infrastructure is great enough that all types of aid should be part of the response. “To curb the epidemic, it is imperative that states immediately deploy civilian and military assets with expertise in biohazard containment,” Joanne Liu, the international president of the organization said at a UN briefing in September. “Without this deployment, we will never get the epidemic under control.”
Update: On Friday, Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, agreed to release $750 million for the Ebola response. Inhofe’s approval was the last hurdle to the funding transfer.