From The Nation:
When House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who has long championed investment in pandemic preparation, included roughly $900 million for that purpose in this year’s emergency stimulus bill, he was ridiculed by conservative operatives and congressional Republicans.
Obey and other advocates for the spending argued […that…] pandemic preparation was essential to any responsible plan for renewing the U.S. economy.
Now, as the World Health Organization says a deadly swine flu outbreak that apparently began in Mexico but has spread to the United States has the potential to develop into a pandemic, Obey’s attempt to secure the money seems eerily prescient.
The current swine flu outbreak is not a pandemic, and there is reason to hope that it can be contained.
But it has already killed more than 80 people in a neighboring country and sickened dozens of Americans — causing the closing of schools and other public facilities in U.S. cities.
On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that a national “public health emergency” had been declared.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Interim Deputy Director for Science and Public Health Program, explained to reporters on Saturday that, because the cases that have been discovered so far are so widely spread (in California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas), the outbreak is already “beyond containment.”
To many Americans, genuinely scary.
Not faked-up, politically-self serving scary, like the arguments former White House political czar Karl Rove advanced in February to frame opposition to the stimulus package Obey crafted in the House.
Rove specifically complained that Obey’s proposal included “$462 million for the Centers for Disease Control, and $900 million for pandemic flu preparations.”
This was wrong, the political operative charged, because the health care sector added jobs in 2008.
As bizarre as that criticism may sound — especially now — Rove’s argument was picked up by House and Senate Republicans, who made it an essential message in their attacks on the legislation.
The attack on pandemic preparation became so central to the GOP strategies that AP reported in February: “Republicans, meanwhile, plan to push for broader and deeper tax cuts, to trim major spending provisions that support Democrats’ longer-term policy goals, and to try to knock out what they consider questionable spending items, such as $870 million to combat the flu and $400 million to slow the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.”
Famously, Maine Senator Susan Collins, the supposedly moderate Republican who demanded cuts in health care spending in exchange for her support of a watered-down version of the stimulus, fumed about the pandemic funding: “Does it belong in this bill? Should we have $870 million in this bill No, we should not.”
Even now, Collins continues to use her official website to highlight the fact that she led the fight to strip the pandemic preparedness money out of the Senate’s version of the stimulus measure.
The Republicans essentially succeeded. The Senate version of the stimulus plan included no money whatsoever for pandemic preparedness. In the conference committee that reconciled the House and Senate plans, Obey and his allies succeeded in securing $50 million for improving information systems at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
But state and local governments, and the emergency services that would necessarily be on the frontlines in any effort to contain a pandemic, got nothing.
No serious player in Washington has been unaware of the fears with regard to a flu pandemic. They have been well-publicized and well-discussed. Even Collins admitted as she objected to the House allocation for preparedness: “I think that everybody in the room is concerned about a pandemic flu.”
Now that fears of a pandemic have been raised, however, it is appropriate to ask whether individuals who are so manifestly irresponsible and partisan should be taken seriously.
This is an especially important concern with regard to Collins, who portrays herself as a moderate who tries to make things work in Washington.
Senate Democratic leaders bowed to Collins in the process of crafting their chamber’s version of the stimulus. In doing so, they eliminated more than 80 percent of the modest amount of money that had been allocated for pandemic preparedness — and all of the money that would have helped emergency services.
The bottom line is that there were no heroes in either party on the Senate side of the ugly process that ridiculed and then eliminated pandemic preparedness funding.
There is, however, a hero on the House side. Throughout the process, David Obey battled to get Congress to recognize that a pandemic would threaten not just public health but a fragile economic recovery.