House Democrats tell us they are outraged by one aspect of the White House response in particular: The White House appears to have informed Democrats that they want to fund the emergency response in part by taking money from a program that funds low-income home heating assistance.
A document that the Trump administration sent to Congress, which we have seen, indicates that the administration is transferring $37 million to emergency funding for the coronavirus response from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which funds heating for poor families.
Democrats see this as provoking budgetary bickering and unnecessary political friction at a time when a clean emergency appropriation could easily avoid both.
“After dithering for weeks as the coronavirus spread around the world, the Trump administration has now decided to pay for its belated response by cutting funding for heating assistance for low-income families,” Evan Hollander, a spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Democrats, told us in a statement.
While budgetary disputes are commonplace, in this case an important principle is at stake. A situation like this could ideally be handled with a clean, new emergency funding bill, making this sort of battling — which could slow the response to the crisis — entirely unnecessary.
The roots of this blowup lie in a request the White House made for $2.5 billion in supplemental spending to respond to coronavirus. This would go to “accelerate vaccine development, support preparedness and response activities and to procure much-needed equipment and supplies.”
Of that $2.5 billion, the administration wants $1.25 billion to be newly appropriated emergency funding and the rest to be taken from other sources, including $535 million from money allocated to the Ebola response, and other funds taken from other programs. (The LIHEAP money is being transferred legally under budgetary statutes designed to give agencies funding flexibility.)
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has slammed this request as inadequate, arguing against taking money from Ebola preparedness and other priorities. Pelosi says Democrats will offer their own plan.
The plan from House Democrats is likely to include as much as $2.5 billion or potentially more, but Democrats want all of it appropriated as new emergency funding rather than taken from other sources, a Democratic aide tells us.
To do this, however, Democrats will need Trump, the administration and Senate Republicans to agree to it.
This is where the money for low-income home heating assistance comes in. Democrats find this request particularly galling, because it would take money away from another program designed to protect people’s well-being, under the duress of the coronavirus threat.
“House Democrats won’t allow the president to shut off families’ heat in the middle of winter,” Hollander tells us. “We will craft an emergency supplemental that treats this pandemic seriously and provides robust funding without stealing from other important priorities.”
This $37 million might seem relatively small, but Mark Wolfe, the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which oversees state LIHEAP program directors, says it could have real impact.
“Winter is far from over, and we need every dollar to help poor families,” Wolfe told us. “$37 million for example is enough to help close to 750,000 families. There is absolutely no good reason why programs designed to help poor families should be sacrificed to address the virus."
In a situation like this, such battling could be avoided with a clean emergency funding request.
Richard Kogan, senior fellow at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points out that this emergency funding process allows for requests that are statutorily exempt from spending caps and is designed precisely in order to enable a rapid response.
“This is the time-honored approach Congress has used to fund emergencies, responding quickly and generously,” Kogan told us.
To those who ideologically oppose wasteful spending, Kogan points out that money appropriated this way can be used only for the emergency in question and cannot be diverted if it doesn’t all get used.
“It remains available only to address that disaster,” Kogan said. “This standard approach has the advantage of avoiding contentious and possibly lengthy fights about offsets, rescissions or transfers.”
This comes as the coronavirus, known as covid-19, continues to spread throughout the world, with a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that we will see “community spread” in the United States and adding that the only question is “how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”
While no one wants to spread panic, this is a moment for an appropriate sense of urgency, not only so ordinary citizens can prepare, but more importantly so that government does everything necessary, as quickly as possible, to contain the virus.
But Trump has tried to communicate the message that everything is fine:
The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2020
What we’re left with is public health officials sounding alarm bells while the president uses his unparalleled megaphone to minimize the threat, and the administration tries to use the opportunity to squeeze money from domestic programs it apparently never liked in the first place. Some way to fight a pandemic.