The U.S. government's coronavirus response has been an epic failure
The coronavirus pandemic is expanding the English language, as big historical events often do. There's one awkward phrase that's suddenly particularly in vogue among elected officials and bureaucrats battling the outbreak: the "whole of government" approach. It is a term meant to signal that all hands are on deck, that COVID-19 has the attention and effort of every person and agency in Washington, D.C., and beyond.
Unfortunately, it is also a good way to describe how the government has performed during this crisis. We have a "whole of government" failure on our hands. It isn't just President Trump who has done an insufficient job, although he bears a great deal of well-documented responsibility. Congress and the courts are falling short, too. The pandemic is more than a public health threat — it also stands to harm and delegitimize American institutions that were already weakened by polarization and the president's preference for demagoguery over leadership.
On the surface, Congress has been unexpectedly responsive to the economic catastrophe created by the pandemic and accompanying lockdowns. The legislative branch has approved $3 trillion in new spending in just a matter of weeks — not enough to make everything right, certainly, but a remarkable achievement considering the gridlock that usually plagues Capitol Hill.
But the House of Representatives — the only part of government controlled by Democrats — is proving unable or unwilling to adapt to the emergency. As The Washington Post notes, the House is "struggling so far to adopt remote voting, Zoom video hearings, or any of the other alternative methods that have become standard for most workplaces in the age of COVID-19."
That means little or no oversight of the executive branch, which is run by a known grifter who suddenly has trillions of dollars to spend. Committees can't meet to work on bills. Nobody can cast votes. But the House — so far — can't agree to allow things like remote voting or proxy voting as emergency alternatives to the centuries-old requirement that members be physically present to cast votes.
And so the House, at this critical stage, is forfeiting its ability to be an equal branch of government.
The Senate is facing a similar issue, but that seems to be to the satisfaction of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who blocked a remote voting bill in his chamber. More dangerously, though, McConnell is vowing to challenge any efforts to send financial aid to states and cities, which may be forced to fire thousands of workers if they can't quickly replace lost revenue. The loss of so many good middle class jobs would deepen what is already a Depression-level recession, but it might accomplish the GOP's goal of weakening and destroying public sector unions. Doing what is best for the country is apparently a secondary concern.
The Supreme Court, at least, is staying in business by hearing arguments via phone. But despite the pandemic, the court has signaled that America's voters are on their own. The court's conservative majority refused to extend the deadline for absentee ballots in the Wisconsin primary election earlier this month, presenting that state's citizens with a choice between endangering their health or exercising their right to vote.
"This court has repeatedly emphasized that lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election," the majority said in the unsigned opinion. The justices apparently haven't noticed these are not ordinary times.
As for President Trump, his shortcomings have become so absurd — injecting humans with disinfectant, anyone? — that he is considering giving up his daily briefings and the accompanying free TV air time that he loves so much.
All three branches of the federal government must do better.
Crises don't just give us new phrases — sometimes they also revive old ideas. There has been increased talk in recent weeks about the Articles of Confederation, the original form of U.S. government that the Founders scrapped in favor of the Constitution. They did so because the national government under the Articles was weak and ineffective. It could not do what Americans needed it to do. Today's "whole of government" approach to the pandemic is also falling short, forcing states to make their own alliances. History may be on the verge of repeating itself.
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