Federal health officials warned Tuesday that the new coronavirus will spread much more than it has in the U.S., and financial investors continued their repricing down of assets as a result. Equities fell another 3% or so. Politicians, meanwhile, were repricing upward their chances of another burst of new federal spending.
The Trump administration on Monday sent Congress a request for $2.5 billion in spending to combat the virus that began in China. The government is now spending some $40 million to $50 million a month, so the request builds in the expectation of more U.S. cases than the 57 already diagnosed.
The White House is seeking up to $1.5 billion to develop and purchase a potential vaccine. Another quarter-billion dollars would go toward stockpiling protective gear, from masks to biohazard suits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would get the rest to cover the costs of testing, repatriating and quarantining Americans who test positive with the disease.
Cue the inevitable gripes from Congress that this isn’t nearly enough. Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the request “long overdue and completely inadequate.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the Administration’s proposal to tap some of the money from an Ebola preparedness account an example of Trump’s “towering incompetence.” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, a Republican, worried that the White House was “lowballing” the emergency.
We’d take these complaints seriously if they were based on any expertise or factual understanding of the threat. Instead, they’re ritualized gripes intended to set up the politics to make the bill a blowout and dare Trump to veto virus funds. The Schumer-Pelosi gambit is to load up the supplemental bill with other health spending, whether for state grants, federal research funds, or even aid for Puerto Rico’s disaster survivors.
Schumer tossed out a $3.1 billion demand with little tangible basis, a tacit acknowledgment of the difficulty of spending on a potential pandemic of unknown severity. If the virus proves more serious or longer-lasting, Congress will have many chances to spend more.
This is the same game Congress played in 2014 when it ultimately appropriated $5.4 billion amid the Ebola panic. Most of that money went to fight Ebola abroad and develop a vaccine and drugs for treatment. Yet Democrats are now objecting to the White House plan to shift some $500 million of unused Ebola funds to fight the coronavirus. The administration deserves credit for trying to reallocate that money to the more urgent threat.
Asked about this criticism while visiting New Delhi, Trump said that if he had requested more money Democrats would have said it was too much. He has a point, though our guess is that Democrats are preparing the ground to blame the administration if the coronavirus spreads. The virus may well get worse, which is why the funding request anticipates more cases. Alas, there is no cure for cynicism in the service of pork-barrel politics.