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, correctly, that a pandemic hitting in the midst of an economic downturn could turn a recession into something far worse -- with workers ordered to remain in their homes, workplaces shuttered to avoid the spread of disease, transportation systems grinding to a halt and demand for emergency services and public health interventions skyrocketing. Indeed, they suggested, pandemic preparation was essential to any responsible plan for renewing the U.S. economy.
But former White House political czar Karl Rove and key congressional Republicans -- led by Maine Senator Susan Collins -- aggressively attacked the notion that there was a connection between pandemic preparation and economic recovery.
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.
And his partisan attacks on his efforts seem not just creepy, but dangerous.
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. Even as Rove and his compatriots argued that a stimulus bill should include initiatives designed to shore-up and maintain any recovery, they consistently, and loudly, objected to spending money to address the potentially devastating economic impact of a major public health emergency.
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 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.
Did Rove, Collins and their compatriots want a pandemic?
Of course not.
They were just playing politics, in the exceptionally narrow and irresponsible manner that characterized the Republican response to the stimulus debate – and that, because of Democratic compromises in the Senate, dumbed down the plan President Obama ultimately signed.
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."
Gread fucking job there GOP and mainstream media. In the name of political gamesmanship you have put the country in peril. I wonder how many media outlets will actually point out what happened earlier this year. Of course they will probably be more concerned with looking forward instead of looking back for retribution.