On Tuesday President Bush signed what will surely be, in its consequences for human beings, the most important bill he’ll ever sign. Incredibly, the media appeared to consider the subject passé — Wednesday’s New York Times didn’t even mention the signing, and the Washington Post consigned it to the “Federal Page.” But this is a triumph to celebrate.
I don’t mean the tax cut. I’m referring to legislation committing our nation to halting the spread of AIDS in Africa. The Senate passed this bill by voice vote, with no recorded dissent. It had already passed the House with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Bush wanted to sign the bill into law before the G-8 summit in Evian this weekend, so he could use it to challenge other rich countries. He got his wish.
For our nation to devote our tremendous resources to saving suffering people a world away is a watershed. It was only four months ago that Bush, in his state of the Union address, elevated the African AIDS crisis to the top of his administration’s agenda, calling for “a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts to help the people of Africa.” It’s an issue that was on the radar screen of relatively few Americans. Usually, a sea change in policy of this magnitude takes years to accomplish. But under Bush’s leadership, this one didn’t.
One wonders whether the media and foreign observers would have been more enthusiastic about this step if it had been taken by someone — anyone — other than George W. Bush. It creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for the simple “it’s about the oil” or “he’s just looking for places to bomb” templates. The most interesting piece I’ve found was this one, from Britain’s leftist Guardian, on the reaction of Irish celebrity activist Bob Geldof. (You remember Geldof, he organized Live Aid — has it really been nearly 20 years?) Here he is, with profanity omitted:
Bob Geldof astonished the aid community yesterday by using a return visit to Ethiopia to praise the Bush administration as one of Africa’s best friends in its fight against hunger and Aids. The musician-turned activist said Washington was providing major assistance, in contrast to the European Union’s “pathetic and appalling” response to the continent’s humanitarian crises. “You’ll think I’m off my trolley when I say this, but the Bush administration is the most radical — in a positive sense — in its approach to Africa since Kennedy,” Geldof told the Guardian. The neo-conservatives and religious rightwingers who surrounded President George Bush were proving unexpectedly receptive to appeals for help, he said. “You can get the weirdest politicians on your side.” Former president Bill Clinton had not helped Africa much, despite his high-profile visits and apparent empathy with the downtrodden, the organiser of Live Aid, claimed. “Clinton was a good guy, but he did — — all.”… Lord Alli, the aid activist who is accompanying Geldof on the trip organised by the UN children’s aid agency Unicef, echoed his praise of the Bush administration. “Clinton talked the talk and did diddly squat, whereas Bush doesn’t talk, but does deliver,” Lord Alli said.
So what does the bill actually deliver? It authorizes the United States to spend $15 billion over the next five years. It’s true that $15 billion really isn’t much when we compare it to a $350 billion tax cut, or a $400 billion Medicare drug benefit. But it is a quantum leap in terms of American funding, nearly tripling our current commitment. In fact, in 1999, our government spent only $154 million fighting AIDS. In 2004, this law will increase the number to $3 billion — almost a twenty-fold increase in just five years. Experts on the ground in Africa say this commitment will begin to turn the tide against this ruthless killer.
Right now, 30 million Africans are already infected, including 3 million under age 15. As Bush noted yesterday, 8,000 Africans die each day, and 14,000 are infected. The legislation would spend the lion’s share of the money on drugs and other treatments for those suffering from AIDS. But substantial sums would also be directed to disease prevention, palliative care for the dying, and caring for millions of AIDS orphans.
This is far from the end of the fight, of course. The reaction from the other G-8 governments will be an important test of their values (which some of them have provided abundant reason to question). And Congress will have to appropriate the $3 billion per annum authorized by this bill — never an easy process. (Bush did say on Tuesday that “we will keep our commitment,” which seems to be a pledge to advocate for full appropriation of the bill.) And there will be years of monitoring our investment, making sure it’s being put to the most effective use. So this bill is the beginning, not the end. But it’s a tremendous start.
As with any legislative success of this magnitude, there is plenty of credit to go around. The story began with activists, including many in faith communities close to the White House, who lobbied President Bush. Also crucial was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. He initially helped to convince President Bush of the gravity of the crisis, and shepherded the bill to Senate passage, turning aside divisive amendments.
Also playing valuable roles were House Republican leaders, who crafted the key compromise. Conservatives in the House, led by Rep. Joe Pitts (R., Pa.), successfully pushed for one-third of the bill’s prevention dollars to be based on Uganda’s successful “ABC” approach, which gives priority to abstinence, being faithful, and condoms when appropriate. They also won approval for a “conscience clause” preventing organizations from being forced to use methods they oppose. On these issues, conservatives improved the bill as much as they could, and ultimately agreed to a reasonable compromise that could pass.
And some congressional Democrats also contributed to the cause. Having visited Africa to see the crisis for himself, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D., N.Y.) added a groundbreaking provision that seeks to change the sexual behavior of men, “reducing sexual violence and coercion, including child marriage, widow inheritance, and polygamy” — behaviors which facilitate the spread of AIDS. Cultural conservatives, to the surprise of some, applauded. Democrats did not seek to delay the bill; all Senate Democrats, and all but one House Democrat, ultimately supported it.
Finally, it was the personal commitment of President Bush that made this bill happen. His efforts show yet again that his vision of compassionate conservatism does not stop at the water’s edge. He knows that this issue will not be a vote-getter for him next year, but he led anyway. At the signing ceremony, he put it simply: “The suffering in Africa is great. The suffering in the Caribbean is great. The United States of America has the power and we have the moral duty to help. And I’m proud that our blessed and generous nation is fulfilling that duty.”
Moral imperatives that clear are rare in the tangled world of Washington. But in seeing the African tragedy clearly and acting, our leaders have done us proud. We need to seek ways to do even more, but we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to celebrate this step.
— Tom Walsh is a writer and consultant in Washington, D.C., and former senior policy adviser to the Senate Committee on Finance. He writes at www.CriticalCondition.org.