National

Diaz-Balart wants permanent emergency fund for medical epidemics like Zika

U.S Rep. Mario Diaz Balart speaks at an economic prosperity event Tuesday at the Biltmore Hotelin Coral Gables.
U.S Rep. Mario Diaz Balart speaks at an economic prosperity event Tuesday at the Biltmore Hotelin Coral Gables. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

The House appropriations committee, appalled by the eight months it took last year to pry loose federal money to fight Zika, is working on a plan to create a permanent emergency fund to battle surprise epidemics, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said Tuesday.

“There was a lot of confusion about where to get the dollars,” the Republican congressman said of Washington’s quarrel last year over money to fight Zika. “It took a long time to get the funding. We had to raid other agencies.... We shouldn’t let that happen again.”

Diaz-Balart said he’s working with other members of the appropriations committee to create a mechanism similar to FEMA, the federal emergency management agency, but targeted on medical emergencies rather than natural disasters. It could be administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or some other existing health-care agency, he said.

“With FEMA, you’ve got a pot of money sitting there, available for immediate spending when it’s needed,” Diaz-Balart said. “Congress fills it back up later. But there’s no need to wait for an appropriation to work its way through Congress before FEMA starts to help.”

Democrats and Republicans squabbled eight months last year – right up until two days before the end of the fiscal year – before passing a $1.1 billion package of aid to help states fight mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus and research a vaccine.

The bill got bogged down in partisan battles about where the money would come from and how it could be spent. Hot-button issues like abortion were dragged into the argument, complicating it further.

Diaz-Balart made his remarks about Zika during a panel discussion on globalism at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, sponsored by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a group that pushes for more government spending on diplomacy and foreign aid.

President Trump’s name was barely mentioned during the 90-minute discussion, but his presence seemed to hover over the panelists as they talked about the benefits of international trade agreements (Trump scuttled the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership deal as soon as he took office) and military-defense treaties (the president has aggressively questioned the cost of NATO).

Most Americans grossly overestimate the amount of U.S. government spending on foreign aid – they think it’s as much as 20 percent of the budget, when it’s really only 1 percent – and underestimate its benefits, Diaz-Balart argued. Helping foreign economies prosper, he said, encourages peace and stability as well as new customers for American goods.

“It is not foreign aid,” Diaz-Balart said. “It is national security spending.” But, he added, nobody in the audience should feel bad if they overestimated the amount of U.S. spending on foreign aid: “You ask members of Congress and they don’t know, either.”

Air Force Gen. Richard E. Hawley, who headed the U.S Air Combat Command before his retirement in 1999 and also spoke at the event, said his lengthy assignments in Europe and Asia convinced him that American diplomacy and foreign aid after World War II literally saved the world.

Without U.S. aid to those regions to help them stave off the communist governments in Moscow and Beijing, Hawley told other panelists, “It would have been a whole different world, and it would not be a happy world for them or us.”

  Comments