Biden to Congress: We’re just about out of COVID funds

Huh? Over less than a year, Congress allocated nearly $5.5 trillion in COVID-19 relief, stimulus, and management funds. How much of that remains? In fact, how much of that was actually earmarked for medical management of the pandemic?

Would you believe … less than 10%?

Nearly all of the money in a key federal program to boost coronavirus testing, therapeutics and vaccines appears to have been committed or already shelled out, raising the potential that the Biden administration may have to ask Congress to approve additional aid.

The dwindling funds reflect an uptick in spending as the White House in recent months has labored aggressively to battle back the rise of the omicron variant. While top officials say they are confident in their ability to weather the latest surge, they have started to explore whether more money might be needed to protect the public against any future variants. …

In total, the figures focus on roughly $350 billion earmarked specifically at the Department of Health and Human Services since the start of the pandemic in 2020. That includes funding under President Donald Trump and the more recent provision of $80 billion as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed into law last spring.

By the Biden administration’s accounting, nearly all of the dollars in the HHS program, known as the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, have been allocated or obligated in some way, a budgetary term that essentially means the money is locked up in contracts or other formal commitments.

Wait — only $80 billion in the March 2021 bill went to HHS? That would mean only 4.2% of the overall spending went to the department responsible for the medical response to the pandemic. Where did the rest of that inflation-triggering spending go? Let’s see:

  • Stimulus checks
  • Extending unemployment bonuses
  • State and local aid ($350 billion!)
  • Housing aid
  • Paid sick and family leave
  • Education/child care ($125 billion!)
  • Small business loans and assistance (~ $47 billion)

Also included — $42 billion in economic aid to California. I wonder where that originated. Could it be from a woman who once advised that we have to pass a bill to find out what’s in it? Could be!

The White House wants Congress to fire up the off-budget funding once again:

In recent days, top White House officials have appeared to echo some of those concerns publicly, suggesting that Congress may need to act in the days ahead to ensure the country is ready for a worst-case scenario.

“We have what we need in this current fight against omicron, and we’ve done a lot to prepare for what’s ahead,” White House coronavirus response chief Jeff Zients said at a news briefing with reporters on Wednesday. “We have boosters for all Americans, we’ve secured 20 million doses of the highly effective Pfizer pill. We’ve expanded supplies and stockpiles of PPE, including masks and gloves.”

But, Zients added, the country is “looking at a future where we will likely need funding for treatments and pills; we’ll need funding to continue to expand testing and to continue to lead the effort, as we’ve done with 1.2 billion doses donated to the world, but to continue to lead that effort to vaccinate the world.”

Given how Congress porked up the last stimulus/relief bill, color me skeptical on this new push — especially coming on the heels of the collapse of Biden’s Build Back Better spend-o-rama. This would provide a perfect back door to funding some of the programs that jammed up the reconciliation process under the guise of “emergency” funding. The list of “emergency” funding from the last tranche suggests that some Democrats already succeeded in using this strategy to redirect non-budgeted funds to their pet causes, especially Nancy Pelosi.

If HHS truly needs more funding, let that be considered in the omnibus budget bill already in process. Congress should not use off-budget spending any longer in  a global pandemic that has already gone into this third year. If HHS needs ongoing funding for pandemic management, let Congress budget those funds properly — and keep a very tight leash on how they get spent in the future.

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