BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | APR 21, 2020
When you have friends and family exposed to the risk of the “novel” coronavirus, which most of us do, it is difficult to think about much else.
New data based on revised models hold out hope for a quicker- than- predicted earlier cessation of the anguish. But just as hope gets brighter the light at the end of the tunnel dims. One scientist warns of a resurgence in the fall worse than this one and other scientists warn of a resurgence now if we don’t keep our distance from one another.
Still, it is time to think and plan ahead. The COVID-19 virus experience has left us with a mountain of problems and challenges, some caused by the virus, some older simply given new urgency by the pandemic.
Change must come and it must come with both swift and methodical action before the crisis is too far behind us. Experience has taught us that public spirit and solidarity will drain from the populous like a flash storm drains from the streets. The adrenalin rush people get in times of crisis will dry up and so will the receptivity for self-discipline and self-sacrifice. We catch the wave of bipartisan political will to get things done. It won’t take long before Congress reverts to the stagnation and partisan gamesmanship of the pre-virus world. As the relief packages demonstrated, the dysfunction is nearby.
Time heals, but time also numbs the senses, dulls the emotions and clouds the memory. As we’ve learned in times of war, sustaining public investment in a war footing is a Herculean task, something not really done successfully since World War II.
There seems to be strong public agreement that transformational changes need to be made in national emergency preparedness and its command structure.
The preparedness story is being told and retold in the testimonials of first responders who still don’t have enough masks, or medications, or blood transfusions, or hospital beds, or hours in the day, or a good night’s sleep, or enough feet and hands to care for those in need. Yet, we also hear and read that there is no shortage of the ventilators; that demands for them were based on speculation and not existing need. Some facilities and states are now shipping equipment to other states and localities. There are reports of the US paying a premium for other countries to produce what we need.
How is it, asks Congressman John Katko of New York, that China is now producing 100 percent of the penicillin prescribed in the US?
There are so many other questions. We need to know where, how, and why this virus found itself on our shores after ravaging Asia and Europe. The origins are important to our understanding of the swiftness of its spreading.
There are other equally serious problems that will need to be addressed, so Representatives Katko, a Republican, and Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, members of the Problem Solvers’ Caucus in the House, have introduced legislation to create a national commission, structured along the lines of the 9/11 Commission. Representative Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican and David Trone, a Maryland Democrat, have introduced similar legislation.
The Murphy-Katko language provides for assessments of US testing, treatments and vaccines, personnel protection, supply chains, social distancing practices, and other mitigation measures and a number of other areas with the objective of “providing Congress, the President and the American people with a full accounting of what occurred as well as recommendations for concrete steps the U.S. public and private sector can take…”
That is a good idea, and so is the Problem Solvers’ new plan for returning the country to more normal economic activity, with special focus on testing, maybe the most controversial of US and statewide responses.
Also key among the challenges is the healing process for millions of Americans whose lives have been disrupted and in some destroyed by unmerciful fatalities and permanent injuries. There are tens of thousands more among first responders and caregivers who will not quickly recover from their trauma, either. There are the millions thrown out of work who may suffer permanent dislocation and mental strain. Mental illness is often the least of our national worries when it should be among the greatest. There are segments of our society, the poorest of the poor, with critical basic needs, particularly among Native Americans who are told to wash their hands when they have no running water, and shelter in place when they have no shelter.
How do we grieve as a nation for those lost and how do we comfort and compensate so many others?
Another of our challenges will be reassessing the relationship between the local, state and national governments, their individual and shared responsibilities in a national health emergency—who’s in charge, when, and why, as well as the effectiveness of our national early-warning systems.
We need to review how we make scientific and political judgments about the degrees and variations of risk to the population, and the appropriate responses in the states and regions in scientific and political partnership. President Donald Trump has made a mess of those relationships, at least from what we see and hear publicly. A good number of Presidents have said they were humbled by the enormity and complexity of the office soon after being sworn in. Not Trump. He seems to have held on tightly to old habits of behavior and decision-making that are as irrelevant and ineffective in the Oval Office as his hairspray is in a strong wind.
A national emergency dictates extraordinary engagement by the Federal bureaucracy and the Congress and courts, but where do you draw the line?
Where do you put up the guardrails between Federal activism and autocracy? It is dangerous territory.
Parallel to that is an old challenge never met, the continuity of Congress in a national emergency. This question strikes at the heart of our system of governance and the pre-eminence placed on Congress by our Founders, a pre-eminence now largely surrendered by members of Congress who are unable or unwilling to conduct the business of the nation and provide leadership on these and other crucial issues that face us in the aftermath of this emergency.
There is a lot lost with our government in self-imposed exile, and many risks inherent in remote or proxy voting.
How do you keep the legislative branch performing its responsibilities when many members have died or are incapacitated, or are quarantined? Voting remotely raises all kinds of questions–some profoundly constitutional–ranging from security of communications to the arcane rules and procedures that impact how the legislative process would be conducted online. Remote voting is another of those simple answers to a complex question that very likely won’t work for a legislative body whose dynamics are like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a cloudless sky. You have to be present to make the pieces fit.
The governors can fill vacancies in the Senate, but the House is different. It never has, and should not be, run by appointed members. Rule XX in the House does provide for business to be conducted with a smaller quorum if a national emergency warrants it, but that rule was put in place years ago after the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist flatly rejected a House resolution, spearheaded by then Rules Chairman David Dreier and my friend Bill Pitts to create a bipartisan, bicameral committee to get some answers. The resolution passed overwhelmingly in an environment of otherwise deep political division in Congress. Too bad the Senate turned it down.
A bicameral solution is a good solution. The answers they would have come up with back then could be a game changer today, when demands on Congress have seldom been greater and the work of the Congress seldom less productive.
Another of the challenges will occur in economics and fiscal policy.
Throwing money at a problem has never been more justified than it is in this case. Millions of Americans must be rescued from economic disaster. The marketplace needs liquidity; the engine of the economy needs grease. But early successful bipartisan action to do that was thwarted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi three times, causing painful delays in getting relief to those who need it the most. All three times, the Speaker blocked action to add her preferences to the relief packages. Some were worthy of consideration, but later, and some of them were blatantly partisan and ideological, having little or nothing to do with the relief effort. Her mindset has never adjusted to the reality of dealing with a national emergency, when gamesmanship and political bartering are wholly inappropriate.
There’s no secret or surprise that throwing those great wads of money at the problem, creating new bureaucracies, new regulations, instructions and guidelines, and countless rulings about who gets what, will not be without errors, unintended consequences, and questions of fairness. It is going to be messy. It already is. Large corporations got checks intended for small businesses and now the government is asking for the return of the money. It is just the beginning.
People are going to be upset and angry and it will be the faces of those people, not those helped, who will appear across the front pages of newspapers and the screens of broadcast news. There will be political and criminal exploitation and wasted tax dollars. It is inevitable. The Federal bureaucracy cannot physically spend those vast amounts of money, without some serious mistakes and waste. How the public deals with it will be critical to how we emerge from crisis.
The Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, is already mapping out a trail of audits of these spending programs, and committees of Congress are gearing up for the same. No doubt Inspectors General in the relative Cabinet departments are doing the same. Too much overlap could cause the whole oversight infrastructure to collapse leaving the truth and knowledge deeply embedded in the rubble. Hopefully there will be cooperation and coordination and little grandstanding.
The big elephant in the Treasury vault is who will pay for somewhere around $4 trillion in economic and social relief?
The Federal deficit was already growing at an 8 percent pace before the virus crisis hit. Congress has already written bad checks for $2.3 trillion, and there is billions more in the pipeline.
According to Dave Boyer writing in the Washington Times recently:
“The federal government’s debt exceeded $24 trillion for the first time two weeks ago. The spike from $23 trillion to $24 trillion was the fastest in history taking only 159 days…”
The federal government is currently spending more than $1 billion per day on the interest on the debt.
The numbers are so astronomical, it is difficult for someone living off of a weekly paycheck or retirement income to fathom what those numbers mean. $1 trillion has 12 zeroes. It’s a million times a million. It is a stack of one-dollar bills 631 miles high. It would rise past the space station, according to a Google search.
Reigning in the deficits is Congress’ problem and Congress hasn’t been willing to do it for a quarter-century.
Boyer quoted former US Comptroller General David Walker:
“Republicans want tax cuts; Democrats want bigger government and spending increases.”
Looking at the phase 3 relief bill, which Democrats killed twice so that more money could be added, Walker said:
”The compromise bill spent over twice as much money and has non-germane things in it, and now they want to spend another $1-$2 trillion plus, and God knows what else is going to be in there. I’m not saying we don’t need to do anything but compromise nowadays is ‘you get what you want, I get what I want, and we’ll pass the bill on to our kids and grandkids.”
Stabilizing the deficits and the debt will demand an investment from the American people and a great deal of discipline, the kind already expended in the virus crisis. But we can’t put it off until later anymore. Later was years ago.
And, finally, there’s the hysterical and relentless ‘breaking news’ drumbeat of the media for news that broke hours or days before.
Every night the death count is “stunning” or “shocking” or “record breaking” as though TV news producers and writers have been kept in a sound-proof booth on Funk and Wagnall’s porch for so long they never knew of the predictions made months ago of deaths numbering twice or three times what they actually are today. They have not been stunning so much as they have been heartbreaking and demoralizing.
There should be a reckoning of the behavior of the media, not just in their role in the politics of the pandemic, but how they have performed their constitutional and institutional role throughout the entire Trump era, beginning on his first day in office and culminating in his impeachment in the House and acquittal in the Senate. While there has been a critical need for greater oversight and reevaluation of the role of the media for decades, the last four years have seen revolutionary changes of greater degree than any time in the history of American journalism, entertainment, and communications.
Pick a subject:
- Large corporate takeover of most US media outlets, the new business models that stress divisiveness, fear-mongering, political and ideological bias;
- The marketing of salacious story-telling get-rich-quick books by journalists, some of whom deliberately withhold legitimate news for their books;
- The abuse and misuse of anonymous sources;
- The abandonment of objective writing and the complete lack of separation between news and opinion;
- The political and ideological bias in the make-up of newsrooms and editorial boards;
- The stunning degree of inaccuracy, exaggeration, incitement, and biased reporting; and
- Most troublesome of all, the assumption of leadership roles in the Trump “resistance”.
Distinguished senior journalists from broadcast and print have expressed reservations and been vocal critics of their current or former profession.
Former Education Security Bill Bennett in an op ed with Seth Leibsohn summed it up well.
“The media is centered in New York City. Although sensationalism is not new, something in the 21st century media landscape is: Reporting the news has been replaced with raising alarms, heightening political tensions, and funneling information through a strictly partisan lens.”
Liberal anti-Trump infotainer Bill Maher chimed in recently as well, according to Real Clear Politics:
“But at some point, the daily drumbeat of depression and terror veers into panic porn…Enough with the ‘life will never be the same’ headlines…Everything looks scary when you magnified it a thousand times.”
We need the news to calm down and treat us like adults, he said.
The malfeasance of the media, to me, is undeniable and irrefutable. So is the visible struggle between honorable journalists and their fist-waving, argumentative counterparts. The questions are, one the matter of degrees, the damage being done to the institution and the country, and the reasons and motives behind it. The time for an exhaustive independent, and transparent national assessment of the media and its role in our politics, our society, and our culture is long overdue.
There is much more we should pay attention to in coming months, including a whole range of critical issues that were before Congress before COVID-19 from appropriations to transportation. There are international alliances in shambles, millions of hungry and destitute migrants across the globe. Terrorism is still with us, as is the destruction of our environment.
This is the section where the solutions to all of the above problems should go, but I don’t have any. Others do. Weigh them all carefully and always remember that in politics easy answers usually sound good but make bad solutions.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.