The current political moment may test whether power really does abhor a vacuum. There is vast open space at the top of the national response to the coronavirus pandemic—space that President Trump and the agencies he oversees have purposefully abandoned. As House and Senate leaders work on the next round of COVID-19 legislation, Congress should assert itself and provide the strong federal leadership the country needs.
The president’s maneuvers since April to evade responsibility for controlling the pandemic have only compounded his troubles. Whether he likes it or not, his fortunes are tied to how well the country contains transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As new cases have surged this summer, the public has become alarmed at federal mismanagement of the response. Even now, at this late stage, the president could improve his position if he and his team changed course and executed an effective national plan. His seeming determination not to do so is holding back the recovery he desperately needs.
In the U.S., the absence of assertive executive leadership does not portend certain failure. Congress, the first branch of the federal government, writes the nation’s laws, and can use that unrivaled power to force upon the agencies it creates and funds responsibilities and policies that the president may oppose or prefer to avoid. That is what must occur in the current bill, as it is likely the last chance to get the federal response on track before a possible surge of infections in the fall.
In May, House Democrats passed the HEROES Act, which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated will add $3.4 trillion to the federal budget deficit over ten years, including $1.7 trillion in 2020 and $1.4 trillion in 2021. Senate Republicans introduced a competing bill this week that costs much less—perhaps around $1.0 trillion over ten years.
Republicans need not like most of what is in the HEROES Act to recognize that its key public health provisions are pointed in the right direction, even if amendments are required. In general, the Democrats are more willing than the Republicans to demand a more aggressive and coordinated federal response to the public health aspects of the crisis, and they are right to do so.
Both parties should support a national framework with a primary objective of directing all efforts—by state government and citizens most especially—toward getting the pandemic under far better control:
- Conditional State and Local Government Financial Support. There is widespread support in Congress for providing direct financial aid to state and local governments. Senate Republicans and the White House have not agreed to back additional direct support yet, but they will have to as part of their negotiations with Democrats. Congress should condition whatever funding ends up in the final bill on state adherence to national standards on testing, contact tracing, virus control measures, and re-opening standards. States that refuse to follow coordinated, science-driven protocols should receive reduced federal financial support. Such an enforcement provision would ensure widespread compliance.
- Testing. The administration says states have the resources they need to perform sufficient numbers of tests, but that is not true. The lack of a coordinated national testing strategy is the primary reason the country is experiencing an uncontrolled surge of new cases. It is long past time to develop and execute a coherent plan focused on increased capacity for diagnostic tests, the purchase and widespread dissemination of point-of-care screening tests necessary to re-open schools and businesses, and a national coordination system that can harness private sector manufacturing capacity and direct supplies to areas of the country most in need of added surveillance.A Rockefeller Foundation committee has recommended $75 billion in new funding for this initiative, which is the amount in the House bill. Senate Republicans are offering $16 billion in new funding. Republicans seem unaware that substantial new assistance is needed to finance the costs of acquiring the screening tests that are essential to safely reopening schools and businesses. State and local school systems do not have sufficient funds to buy these screening tests on their own, and businesses are reluctant to do so also. A $75 billion federal investment would be well worth the cost, as this is the single most important step necessary to safely resume more economic activity.
- Contact Tracing. States have had at least four months to build their contact tracing capacities, and yet many have not done so. Local public health agencies believe a workforce of about 100,000 is needed to keep the virus under control. There is no single formula for effective virus control internationally, but a common theme is robust contact tracing working in tandem with widespread testing. Congress should stipulate that states must meet minimum contact tracing standards to receive full federal financial support.
- Virus Control Measures and Reopening Metrics. There is no mystery at this stage of the pandemic about what steps citizens should take to help control the spread of the virus. Social distancing when out in public, the avoidance of cramped indoor facilities, and widespread use of facial coverings are all essential, population-based mitigation measures. Currently, 30 states plus the District of Columbia have mandatory mask rules. Congress should make it a nationwide requirement. Further, Congress should put teeth in the reopening standards promulgated by the White House in April. States that meet the milestones can move onto the next phases of relaxed standards. Those that don’t cannot relax their reopening protocols without losing some of the federal support provided in the bill.
There are many other aspects of the crisis response that should be addressed in the legislation too: assistance to support the economy and limit the damage to business viability; funding for vaccine procurement and distribution, including internationally; direct financial assistance for schools to meet the costs of redesigned classrooms and other expenses; and many other provisions as well.
While all of these matters are important, the next phase of the public health response is what is most urgent and essential. More effective containment of the virus is the key to allowing the resumption of something close to normalcy this fall while awaiting an effective vaccine. Without it, the country is courting a true catastrophe, with an uncontrolled pandemic causing increasing harm to human health and economic well-being.
In recent years, many conservatives have called on Congress to reassert itself in its never-ending power struggle with the executive branch. The president has made it clear he does not want to take the lead in responding to the current crisis. Congress has the opportunity to take ownership of the federal response, and should.