Congress dawdles while Zika virus endangers Americans

If you want to understand why many Americans have a deep distrust and dislike of government, consider Congress’ reaction to the Zika crisis.

Or, should we say, its non-reaction to the Zika crisis.

Instead of responding decisively, Democrats and Republicans alike have played rank partisan politics to such an extent that Congress has abrogated one of its fundamental responsibilities: to protect the public health.

Congress is stalemated over a $1.1 billion plan to fight the mosquito-borne virus. Not because anyone disagrees about the need to keep alive a clinical trial to test a vaccine that’s about to run out of money. Not because they don’t want better and more accurate tests for Zika, more thorough mosquito-spraying programs, or more public education on how to reduce one’s risk of getting Zika.

The fight is over a Republican attempt to make sure that Planned Parenthood gets none of the funding for maternal care and contraception, important issues for a virus linked to severe fetal birth defects and one that can be transmitted sexually. The GOP inserted a poison pill, the Democrats spit it out, and Zika rages on.

Since President Barack Obama requested emergency funding in February, the nation has learned that Zika is spread not only by mosquito bites but also through blood transfusions, semen and, perhaps, via contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. We’re learning Zika also could affect adult brains and impair memory. We know that the 50 states have reported nearly 3,000 cases, 43 of which were acquired in Florida. More than 15,000 cases were reported in Puerto Rico. We know mosquito season in the Gulf Coast lasts through October. Some experts look at Zika’s rapid spread and the lack of scientific knowledge and see similarities with the start of the AIDS epidemic.

So what is Congress waiting for?

For now, Zika is included in a GOP bill to continue funding the federal government beyond Sept. 30 to avoid another shutdown, a proposal criticized by both Democrats and conservative Republicans. Some want a clean bill, whose only function would be to fund Zika.

That’s the best solution. Pass the clean bill. Now.