Larkin Gallup, Editor
On Wednesday, March 9th, Congress passed a massive spending bill, signed by President Biden on Tuesday, March 15th, averting the government shutdowns that plagued the Trump administration. The 1.5 trillion dollar spending bill has ended months of negotiations and disputes between Democrats and Republicans and has left party leaders on both sides with both wins to celebrate and losses to apologize for to their bases. One of its most newsworthy aspects is the 13.6 billion dollars allocated to aid to Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion, a follow-up to President Biden’s past promises to help Ukraine in their fight to maintain sovereignty.
The bill also increases funding to congressional offices by 21%, which lawmakers have said will help them hire and retain a diverse workforce and pay traditionally underpaid staffers more. The Internal Revenue Service will also enjoy an increase of 675 million dollars in its annual budget, marking its largest increase since 2001. In particular, Democrats are celebrating landmark increases in education funding, including an expansion of the Pell Grant award amount and a concentration of funding headed for high-poverty K-12 schools. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are celebrating an increase in defense spending, with half of the bill’s funds allocated to defense and national security, including military personnel and the development of new infrastructure.
However, a notable lack of funding for COVID-19 response and preparedness casts a marked shadow over these details. In the last days of negotiations along party lines, lawmakers announced that billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funding would be cut from the bill. This funding would have included money for states to buy personal protective equipment (PPE), expand vaccine programs, and continue at current testing capacities. Notably, the bill would have included around 5 billion dollars allocated to COVID-19 response worldwide, especially in the Global South. Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday that Democrats would attempt to pass the funding in the coming weeks as a separate bill. However, that bill will face an uphill battle in both the House and the Senate, and many Democrats have expressed their doubts that the funding will be accessed.
The White House has warned of dire consequences if COVID-19 response funding is not secured in the near future. In a recent fact sheet, they reported that the United States may see more domestic cases in the coming months as a result of cases rising abroad. They argue that the United States will not have enough additional boosters, PPE, or treatments for immune-compromised individuals. In their most explicit language, they express the potential threat of testing and vaccine programs being halted entirely in the presence of too-little funds.
While the White House is defending President Biden’s political agenda and advocating for funding for him to complete this agenda, they make several clear points about what the spending bill has revealed. The stripping of COVID-19 funds from the spending bill has revealed the priorities of Capitol Hill on both sides of the aisle. It proves a continuation of the broken promises of support to other nations in pandemic response.
Republicans have argued that they are not opposed to COVID-19 response funding but rather require that spending be cut elsewhere to offset the cost of the billions of dollars that would have been set aside. While Republicans’ priorities, that of reducing government spending and the involvement of government in general, are relatively consistent with their stance on other matters, the bill is particularly revealing for Democrats. Democrats have spent much of the pandemic arguing that they are the party on the side of science and public health; however, their willingness to drop the funding and table it for another time reveals shifting priorities. Overall attention is shifting from the pandemic as politicians on both sides of the aisle focus on getting the economy back on track. However, rising foreign cases have made it abundantly clear that the pandemic is not over yet, and the abandonment of COVID-19 response funding may prove a mistake.
Scientists have argued that the variants that have plagued the United States and Europe since the middle stages of the pandemic are largely caused by a lack of comprehensive vaccine programs worldwide. As of November 2021, only 0.7% of vaccine doses have been administered to low-income countries, while high- and middle-income countries have received 74% of doses. This clear inequity in vaccine distribution endangers the entire world, with Dr. Andrew Freedman, an academic in infectious diseases at Cardiff University Medical School, arguing that “until the whole world is vaccinated, not just rich Western countries, … we are going to remain in danger of new variants coming along….”
Calls from international organizations, NGOs, and lower-coming countries to improve equity in vaccine distribution must be heeded if the world is to produce a long-term solution to the pandemic. The 5 billion dollars in the spending bill allocated to worldwide vaccine distribution was already insufficient, but it was a step in the right direction. Its removal from the bill clearly reveals the prioritization of a domestic agenda to boost a faltering economy and achieve political gains on both sides of the aisle. As long as a global COVID-19 response continues to be deprioritized by not just the United States but the West in general, there seems to be no end in sight to the pandemic. While the United States may have just sorted out its funding for the rest of the fiscal year, it has enormous implications for the rest of the world and the future of public health.
Ellyatt, Holly. “’The next Variant Is Just around the Corner’: Experts Warn the World’s at Risk until All Are Vaccinated.” CNBC, CNBC, 7 Jan. 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/06/new-covid-variants-are-a-danger-until-the-whole-world-is-vaccinated.html.
Folley, Aris. “Five Things to Know about the $1.5T Spending Bill Congress Just Passed .” TheHill, The Hill, 13 Mar. 2022, https://thehill.com/policy/finance/597934-five-things-to-know-about-the-15t-spending-bill-congress-just-passed.
Lobosco, Katie, and Tami Luhby. “What’s in the Government Spending Law.” CNN, Cable News Network, 15 Mar. 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/09/politics/government-omnibus-spending-bill-2022/index.html.
Mukherjee, Joia. “Global Vaccine Inequity Led To The COVID-19 Omicron Variant: It’s Time For Collective Action.” Health Affairs, 26 Jan. 2022, https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/forefront.20220124.776516/.
Sullivan, Peter. “White House Warns of ‘Severe’ Hit to COVID-19 Response after Funding Dropped.” TheHill, The Hill, 10 Mar. 2022, https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/597624-white-house-warns-of-severe-hit-to-covid-19-response-after-funding-dropped?rl=1.
United States, Congress, Office of the President. FACT SHEET: Consequences of Lack of Funding for Efforts to Combat COVID-19 If Congress Does Not Act, 15 Mar. 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/03/15/fact-sheet-consequences-of-lack-of-funding-for-efforts-to-combat-covid-19-if-congress-does-not-act/. Accessed 2022.
[Image credit: Wuestenigel CC-BY 2.0]