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Will Congress prepare for the next pandemic, too?

Biden asked Congress to invest an additional $30 billion in pandemic-preparedness. Why isn't it in the infrastructure package?


It's difficult to prepare for an unforeseen crisis, and as the United States first confronted COVID-19, it's no secret that the country found itself flat-footed in many areas. Many public-health officials quickly realized that we'll have to be better prepared for the next pandemic before it begins.

With this in mind, President Joe Biden asked Congress to invest an additional $30 billion in pandemic-preparedness. As The Atlantic reported yesterday, "The investment would replenish medical stockpiles, proactively develop vaccines for major types of viruses, and ensure that the United States has a permanent production base of face masks and respirators. In effect, it would amount to an Apollo Program-like push to guarantee that a global pandemic could never shut down the country again."

Given the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, and our collective desire not to have to endure this again, it seems like money well spent. Except, it seems some in Congress don't quite see it that way. Catherine Rampell explained in her new column:

Despite these and other troubling incidents, Biden's preparedness-funding request got cut completely from the bipartisan infrastructure deal. Public health experts then hoped it would be shifted into the reconciliation bill that Democrats plan to pass with a party-line vote. Senate aides have told me, however, that while there is a line item in the reconciliation package for pandemic preparedness funding, it has been shaved down -- from Biden's original $30 billion to about $5 billion.

To be sure, there is some fluidity to the process. The bipartisan infrastructure package is still pending, with senators introducing all kinds of amendments designed to improve the proposal. There's nothing to stop members from adding $30 billion to the $550 billion deal to help prepare for the next pandemic.

For that matter, the Democrats' larger reconciliation package doesn't even exist in bill form yet, and there's plenty of time for the party to make sure the $30 billion -- as part of a multi-trillion-dollar effort -- is included in the legislation.

That said, at least for now, the money doesn't exist in either of the two legislative tracks. The Senate bill allocates no new money for pandemic-preparedness, while the reconciliation bill will reportedly invest $5 billion in the effort.

Clearly, there are political pressures at play. In the Senate, the bipartisan deal was difficult enough to negotiate, with Republicans pushing aggressively to keep the overall spending totals low. If Senate Democrats were to push a new amendment pushing these pandemic-preparedness funds, the GOP minority would demand that Dems come up with a way to pay for the $30 billion investment -- and it's not as if that money is lurking in the couch cushions.

But the reconciliation bill offers another opportunity to make the investment. Yes, there are some moderates who will look for every possible opportunity to narrow the size and scope of the second bill, but as Rampell's column concluded, "A year and a half into covid-19, with more than 613,000 Americans dead and cases rising again, lawmakers still aren't ready to commit the funds necessary to prevent another tragedy of this scale. If these conditions aren't sufficiently motivating, what would be?"

The politics are admittedly tricky: it's tough to lobby in support of funding for a future crisis that doesn't yet exist, especially given the pressures to address pressing problems that many are addressing right now. But the future will thank the present if lawmakers do the right thing.