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Is AIDS the last bipartisan issue?
These days, Washington can't agree on anything. Thankfully, though, some brave lawmakers are still willing to cross the aisle to fight a deadly disease
Bill Frist
Bill Frist
W

e live in fiercely contentious times. Every day, it seems, a new issue arises that Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on. Health care, taxes, energy, favorite flavor of ice cream — it seems our elected leaders must disagree at every turn. But one issue that has so far repulsed the partisan pressures of the times was highlighted in our nation's capital last week: the fight against HIV/AIDS. 

Washington, D.C., hosted the XIX International AIDS Conference. It was an energetic, passion-filled week. More than 23,000 attendees from across the globe heard and engaged speakers including both former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, cutting edge research scientists, activists, Nobel laureates, world leaders, and even a few celebrities. Perhaps even more important, many HIV positive men and women came together from dozens of countries to find a caring, supportive community. 

The United States — and more specifically, the American taxpayer — has been the undisputed world leader in fighting this cagey virus for which there is no cure. This single virus has taken the lives of more than 580,000 Americans and 25 million globally since it emerged here in our country just over 30 years ago. The conference was a celebration of the remarkable success made because of this leadership, and a call for continued support.

When we stop the hollowing out of societies and inspire hope, there is no limit to what we can accomplish together.

As moderator for a panel on the congressional role, I witnessed what I felt to be an accurate portrayal of how we got to the point where we could celebrate so many successes. Fundamental to the progress has been bipartisanship. Participating were two Democrats, Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), and two Republicans, Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.). 

Our panel's balanced party identification was more than symbolism, as Rep. Lee acknowledged when she described the U.S. response as bipartisan, saying, "it never would have happened without … Republicans in the House and the Senate." Indeed, the bold $15 billion PEPFAR commitment initiated by President George W. Bush and supported by Congress was quickly taken up and expanded under the Obama administration. All panel members were quick to praise the leadership and dedication of the other's party. 

And there is cause for such praise. PEPFAR, unprecedented in scope and size in its combatting of a single disease, has saved millions of lives, provided 4.5 million people with treatment, enabled hundreds of thousands of HIV positive mothers to give birth to healthy, disease-free children, and allowed tens of millions to receive testing, counseling and care. In 1995, 50,000 Americans died of AIDS. In 2009, that number was down to 20,000. Promisingly, partner countries are increasingly supporting this work internally. Last year, poorer countries invested $8.6 billion into the fight as international financing provided by wealthier nations amounted to $8.2 billion. As I have said for years, when we stop the hollowing out of societies and inspire hope, there is no limit to what we can accomplish together. 

The results of this bipartisan American commitment are in, and they are undeniable. Our past investment has inspired others to contribute, saved lives at home and around the world, and empowered economic development with a healthier workforce. But the risk today in a more highly charged partisan environment and in more fiscally challenging times is to say we have done our job and it's time to move on. That would be a huge mistake, and all our progress would be erased because we still don't have a cure. Around the world and at home, the AIDS epidemic is far from over. 

Rep. Lee noted that there are still American communities where "the percentages [of AIDS] are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa." This is unacceptable, and you do not have to look far into the past to a time when both parties wholeheartedly understood this. 

As Sen. Enzi recollected, in 2003 the PEPFAR bill "passed both the House and Senate unanimously, un-amended, in less than two months. That never happens." But Enzi elaborated that five years later, when the time came for reauthorization under President Bush, the measure passed "again in a bipartisan way" — although "we didn't have quite the same votes that we had the first time." 

However, hope for preserving this flame of bipartisan conviction was articulately reflected by the two other members of the panel, Sens. Rubio and Coons, each representing different parties, and neither of whom were in office during the original PEPFAR passage. They have emerged as powerful and knowledgeable voices on global health and HIV. Such leadership is vital when the focus of Congress, today filled with new members who were not around when PEPFAR originally passed, is understandably on domestic issues, the economy, jobs, and health care. 

While living and working in Africa in the mid 1980s, Sen. Coons was inspired by the profound human tragedy he witnessed firsthand and has transformed these experiences into true leadership. But he warns that we "can't take [continued U.S. leadership] for granted in what is an incredibly difficult, very partisan and very divided Congress at a time when our politics are in some ways the rockiest they've been in more than a generation." But out of a world of mudslinging and disagreement, the Democratic senator says it "has been really refreshing to be able to work closely with Republicans" to fight this epidemic.

At a time when our national debt is skyrocketing, the typical American finds it difficult to understand how massive spending for people overseas, even if it is lifesaving, can be justified. But just how massive is this spending really? Not the 25 percent of our budget that most Americans think. In truth, our foreign aid spending is less than 1 percent of the federal budget. As Sen. Rubio, himself a favorite of the Tea Party, eloquently asserted, "If you zeroed out foreign aid it would do nothing for the debt, but it would be devastating not just for the world, but for America's role in it." 

Progress has been mind-blowing. Science made possible by taxpayer investment through the NIH has brought miraculous new drugs to treat and, just this month, new medicines to prevent. Cost of treatment has fallen ten-fold and continues to plummet. Prevention strategies have turned the tide of devastation. But all this was accomplished because Americans came together, Republican and Democrat, working hand in hand in a bipartisan and meaningful way, rallying together to fashion solutions that are changing the course of history. 

As Sen. Rubio declared, "the closer we get to the finish line is not the time to ease up, it's the time to run through the tape." Let's continue to put our partisan differences aside and run this one together.

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