Politics The CDC’s ‘Potomac Fever’ is an economic health threat
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How tragic that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in so many ways heroic in the fight against COVID-19, has fallen victim to a strain of "Potomac Fever." It’s using its efforts to combat COVID-19 to exercise economic regulatory policy well beyond its authority.
Take, for example, the CDC’s expansion of a moratorium on residential evictions that started as a temporary measure at the beginning of the pandemic.
When the eviction moratorium was initially enacted by Congress at the end of March 2020, it may have made sense because of the desperate situation. The theory was that a temporary moratorium would slow the spread of COVID-19 by keeping would-be evictees indoors. Unfortunately, as time passed, the CDC stepped in to expand this moratorium andwell past its expiration date without ever bothering to consult with Congress.
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As well intended as this order may have been, generating policy without authority or congressional input has had unintended economic consequences. An eviction moratorium gives many tenants little incentive to pay rent when landlords have little recourse to collect it. The landlords, many of whom are small-property owners, still need to pay the bills on the property. But, thanks to the CDC, small-property owners are being squeezed, with many facing the prospect of bankruptcy. This is what happens when unelected bureaucrats are allowed to make crucial decisions in the place of officials who are accountable to voters.
Federal courts are beginning to recognize that the CDC doesn’t have unlimited authority. In a ruling last month, a federal judge declared that the eviction moratorium was an overstep, writing: “It is the role of the political branches, and not the courts, to assess the merits of policy measures designed to combat the spread of disease, even during a global pandemic.” Other federal judges have reached the same conclusion.
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The legal status of the moratorium remains in limbo because the Biden administration has appealed the rulings, but these decisions have sent a clear message that the CDC has overreached its authority.
The eviction moratorium hasn’t been the agency’s only jurisdictional overreach. More than a year ago, the CDC acted to shutter the cruise industry. Although the industry has adapted by implementing new safety protocols, apps, and technology, the CDC has remained sluggish in its bureaucratic disinclination to meet changing circumstances.
Recently, the CDC issued new guidelines that are a step in the right direction. Yet by continuing to drag its feet, an agency reluctant to relinquish control is signaling that it’s feeling the heat rather than seeing the light.
The matter of reopening public schools is another area into which the CDC inserted itself into the political and policy process. Initially, CDC Director Rochelle Walenskythere “is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”
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With lower cases rates in communities and vaccines available for 12-17 year olds, schools are weighing the rules for fall. The result — a patchwork of different policies depending on what state Americans live in, or even down to which district their kids are enrolled in — comes on the heels of a chaotic school year that’s finally coming to a close. Parents and students are now eagerly looking to the fall as a time for more stability and, because of vaccines, a return to full-time, in-person school with far less rules.
The Biden administration quicklythese comments, explaining that Walensky only “spoke to this in her personal capacity.” But between American Federation of Teachers officials and the Biden administration reveal that the teachers union placed massive pressure on the CDC, with the AFT working with the agency to shape the Biden administration’s school reopening policies. In fact, on multiple occasions, AFT language was used in the final CDC guidelines. Apparently, science was not the first consideration as the CDC maneuvered to allay the concerns of Biden’s political allies at the expense of America’s children.
The CDC’s ability to manage public health emergencies depends in large part on public support. The agency’s overreach into areas beyond its jurisdiction and core competency places its reputation, and consequently its effectiveness, at risk. Other implications of bypassing congressional authority extend well beyond the present crisis.
If the CDC or any federal agency is not checked when it attempts to bestow greater power upon itself with less accountability, the inevitable result is corrosive to our liberties. An immutable law in Washington is that once an agency expands its authority, it becomes virtually impossible to roll it back, and the public is left to pay the consequences. Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, that rent is coming due.
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Rick Santorum served as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007.
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Covid-19 broke the CDC. Can Rochelle Walensky fix it? .
Now the agency faces its biggest test yet: loosening its public safety guidance as the pandemic recedes, while simultaneously trying to prevent infection rates from spiking.Rochelle Walensky’s remarks caught many CDC scientists and officials off guard. Her boss, President Joe Biden, had campaigned on a promise to take control of the pandemic by letting science lead — a pledge that hinged almost entirely on allowing the nation’s top health experts, including those at the CDC, to speak publicly.