As Ebola attention fades, lawmakers beg for spotlight

 

Lawmakers are pleading for public attention on Ebola, after the disease disappeared from the political agenda almost immediately after Election Day. 

Congress has held five hearings on Ebola since returning from the midterm recess, including four this week. Nearly all have featured top members focusing on the Obama administration’s response.

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Still, attendance has been scarce, and news coverage has nearly evaporated.

The half-empty hearing rooms and lack of front-page coverage is markedly different from the month before the midterm elections — a difference that lawmakers have criticized at each panel. 

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThis week: Senate tries to avoid landmines on massive spending bill The Hill's Morning Report: Dems have a majority in the Senate (this week) Schumer to meet with Kavanaugh on Tuesday MORE (D-Mo.), among the few lawmakers at Wednesday’s Ebola hearing by the Senate Homeland Security Committee, tried using guilt to lift the issue back onto the national radar.

She tweeted a photo from her seat during Wednesday’s hearing, which showed a half-dozen empty desks beside her.

“Fascinating. Empty seats and no cameras for hearing on Ebola & public health: threats, lessons learned, and preparedness,” McCaskill tweeted.

But even the senator did not stay for the full hearing, which lasted nearly three hours. By the end, only Chairman Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperSenate panel spars with Trump administration over treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children Senate study: Trump hasn’t provided adequate support to detained migrant children Overnight Energy: Trump elephant trophy tweets blindsided staff | Execs of chemical plant that exploded during hurricane indicted | Interior to reverse pesticide ban at wildlife refuges MORE (D-Del.) remained.

During the hearing, Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate panel spars with Trump administration over treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children Senate study: Trump hasn’t provided adequate support to detained migrant children Senators introduce bill to change process to levy national security tariffs MORE (R-Ohio) also gave a shoutout to “anybody on C-Span who's actually watching.”

Members of Congress are trying to regain attention on the issue, as they weigh a $6 billion funding request from the White House and continue to pass legislation to boost the national response. A Senate health committee passed a bill Wednesday to speed up potential treatments for the disease.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, released a statement Wednesday stressing that his committee “remains focused” on the epidemic, as it continues to worsen in West Africa.

“Although Ebola may no longer be on the front pages, the situation remains grave,” Upton wrote in a statement Wednesday as he highlighted his committee’s two hearings this week.  

Ebola was featured in 1,000 broadcasts last month and is now down to only 49, according to an analysis by a news watchdog group Media Matters for America.

CNN and Fox News, the networks that had previously devoted the most attention to Ebola, only ran 10 segments apiece.

Attention had been slowly shifting away from Ebola before the midterms, as the half-dozen infected Americans all recovered from the disease. The last patient, Dr. Craig Spencer, was released from the hospital Nov. 11.

Coverage ticked up slightly this week, after an infected doctor from Sierra Leone was flown to the U.S. for treatment, but the help came too late, and he died days later.

Obama noted the eclipsing attention on Ebola this week, as he continued to push for his funding request.

"While we should feel optimistic about our capacity to solve the Ebola crisis, we cannot be complacent simply because the news attention on it has waned,” he said.

Obama’s remarks are also different from before the midterms.

In late October, he suggested the media's heightened coverage of Ebola stoked fear in the U.S.

“I know that, with all the headlines and all the news, that people are scared,” he said at the time.