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A Brouhaha Over COVID Funding

Congress removed $15b in COVID funding from the omnibus spending bill. Now what?

This week, President Joe Biden signed into law the final fiscal year (FY) 2022 omnibus spending bill. Clocking in at about $1.5 trillion – and coming more than six months after the fiscal year actually began – the legislation got to his desk with little drama … relatively speaking, at least. After all, in Washington, D.C. there always is some last-minute intrigue.

While a federal government shutdown never seemed likely last week, there was a last-minute omnibus scuffle. And the fight indicates that members of the U.S. House and Senate are now in full campaign mode. No policy is immune from politics — not even funding for the tools that members of both parties admit the country needs to continue to contain and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Setting the Stage: How Much Have the Feds Spent on COVID-19?

According to a New York Times report this past weekend, the U.S. government has spent a staggering amount of money to meet the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than $5 trillion, in fact. That sum is approximately $900 million more than the U.S. government spent on World War II, in total, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

More than half of the federal COVID-related spending, $3.5 trillion, went to help individuals, families, and businesses deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic through programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and the expanded refundable child tax credit. About two percent of the $5 trillion ($80 billion) went just to airlines.

Incredibly, considering the human toll the pandemic has wrought, less than 10 percent of the $5 trillion ($482 billion) went to health and medical care. The nation has spent $109 billion on vaccine development and supplies and treatments; $46 billion on testing; and $156 billion on grants to health care providers, for example. Additionally — and tragically — the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided more than $2 billion to help cover funeral costs for more than 300,000 families of people who died from COVID-19.

State and local governments have received more than the health care and medical sectors. Elementary and secondary schools got $190 billion; transit programs received $69 billion; and the federal government even spent $400 million on election security. In all, state and local governments have been allocated $745 billion in federal aid to deal with the pandemic. But here is the problem, at least as it relates to Congress’ consideration of the omnibus: as The Times also explains, “A significant portion has yet to be spent.”

After suffering major revenue declines at the beginning of the pandemic, many states are now enjoying huge budget surpluses. And that means some federal lawmakers have their claws out. As the national debt balloons, they want those federal COVID dollars back.

COVID Funding: What Happened Last Week

The FY 2022 omnibus originally was paired with more than $22.5 billion in new funding related to the COVID-19 pandemic that the White House had requested. Republican lawmakers negotiated with Biden administration officials and that number was reduced to $15.6 billion. The White House also agreed that the new funding would be paid for by taking back unused dollars from state and local governments.

House Democrats, along with many governors, balked at the idea of paying for the new funding by clawing back unused funds. A handful of House lawmakers even said they would not vote for the omnibus. Instead of putting the whole omnibus in jeopardy — right before the short-term continuing resolution that had been keeping the federal government afloat was set to expire — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided to separate the two initiatives. Thus, the omnibus is now law and Washington lawmakers are still mired in a political fight over billions of additional dollars in COVID-related funding.

It is a fight that likely will not end soon since Democrats are not even on the same page.

COVID Spending: Where We Are This Week

The White House is sticking to its insistence that $15.6 billion in additional funding is required to boost COVID-19 testing capabilities and to purchase vaccines and treatments. The Biden administration also said it needs funding to help treat patients who lack health insurance. In a change from last week, administration officials now argue the new spending is emergency funding and therefore Congress should not need to find budget offsets to pay for it.

Republicans have said they support the funding in principle but want more details from the White House on past and future COVID funding. “I’m for replenishing these accounts,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo) told Politico. “But it’s their job to help make the case as to how much they need and how long it will last. I’d like to have some of those facts, so I could advocate for that amount of money in that amount of time.”

Republicans also want better accounting of how previous COVID-19 funds have been spent before moving forward with new funding.

In a letter to lawmakers, the White House has said it will have to cut off vaccine orders if Congress does not act soon. Biden administration officials also have said they will have to start cutting back on a COVID-19 program to test and treat the uninsured, pull back on disease surveillance, and stop buying oral antiviral treatments.

COVID Spending: What Are the Prospects?

Even if the House moves on the legislation this week – which seems unlikely given the divisions among just Democrats – the legislation likely will not get through the Senate where it would need 60 votes. Senate Democrats have acknowledged that the omnibus bill was the best chance to get additional COVID funding through Congress this session.

“Once we lost it in the House, it’ll be tough to get back,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I don’t know if those House members deluded themselves into believing that there was some other path, but I think it’s hard to find an alternative path other than in the budget.”

As a result, some House Democrats who are in vulnerable seats this election cycle reportedly have privately asked Speaker Pelosi not to put the $15 billion in funding up for a standalone vote. Speaker Pelosi also is not happy with the members of her caucus who pulled their support last week for adding COVID spending and pay-fors to the omnibus spending bill. According to Punchbowl News, Rep. Pelosi “spent a chunk of the Democratic leadership meeting Tuesday night railing against the Democrats who held up passage of the omnibus until the COVID funds were removed, several sources familiar with the meeting told us.”

That means that, at this moment, it appears that anger and opposition will reign. The House’s second-in-command, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) would not even commit to holding a vote this week on more COVID funding. Instead, he simply said, “We’re talking about it, yes, if we can. We need to get a pay-for that everyone feels comfortable with, because Republicans want a pay-for. And that’s fine. That’s what we’re talking about.”

Hope on the Horizon?

According to The Associated Press, overhauling U.S. public health and preparedness could cost $100 billion in the first year, $20 billion to $30 billion in the following two years, and $10 billion to $15 billion annually thereafter.

Health experts have warned lawmakers that political fights will have real costs for future preparedness. Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania warned, “We’ve got to spend in proportion to the damage done, and the damage done has been huge. Being penny-wise now would be foolish.” (Dr. Emanuel is the brother of former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.)

There also is this news from Axios: COVID cases are once again surging in European countries, signaling the United States could soon experience another spike. COVID also continues to rear its head at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff tested positive. (Vice President Kamala Harris has tested negative.) On Capitol Hill, Reps. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Jared Golden (D-Maine) and five other House lawmakers all tested positive after attending a recent retreat for Democratic lawmakers.

A Senate committee did approve a separate pandemic preparedness bill this week on an overwhelmingly bipartisan 20-2 vote. That legislation still has a long way to go, however, before it makes it to President Biden’s desk. And if it does become law, members of the House and Senate then will have to approve legislation to fund the initiatives outlined in it.

In other words: even if members of Congress can agree on the Biden administration’s current request for COVID funding, there are more fights to come. One area where lawmakers might agree, though? Making daylight savings time permanent. The U.S. Senate unexpectedly and unanimously passed legislation yesterday that would do away with moving clocks back in the winter and forward in the spring beginning in 2023. The legislation now awaits consideration in the House.

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