The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is getting a much-needed crash course in American constitutional governance.
The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted the CDC into the spotlight, with Americans tuning into the CDC’s announcements in ways not seen before. With this new attention has come an unprecedented amount of power for the agency to wield. The CDC now, predictably, does not want to relinquish its power.
Recently, news reports appeared detailing how Michael Caputo, the Department of Health and Human Services’ spokesman, has asked the CDC to correct its reports to accurately present who is at risk of COVID-19. The response from the media was one of feigned outrage. A Trump political appointee “with no medical or scientific background,” (as Politico pointedly observed) was advising the career scientists at the CDC? The audacity!
The media elites and the bureaucrats at the CDC have evidently forgotten the intentional design of our government, which rests on accountability and oversight. Mr. Caputo, as a Trump representative, was fully within his proper role to oversee reports and to insist that the reports accurately assess risks — not build a narrative or cherry-pick studies to fuel a certain viewpoint. This is the way science is supposed to work, right?
The CDC has developed a habit of pushing its own narrative, even when science would indicate a change might be necessary. For months, the CDC has resisted calls from the president to revise its guidelines for reopening schools, as just one example. The CDC’s guidelines have made it impossible for most school districts across the country to open for in-person instruction five days a week.
Our nation’s Founders were keenly on guard against power grabs. The system of government they settled on was a never-before-seen intricate labyrinth of checks and balances, with each branch of government accountable to the other two, and also responsible for providing ongoing oversight.
Those in the media have protested the oversight the HHS was providing to the CDC because the CDC is a scientific agency, and science, apparently, is above the rules of governance stipulated in the U.S. Constitution. The Founders would laugh if they heard this explanation that science is a shield from the necessary system of accountability.
Our Founders, in fact, were aware of the vital role of science in society, and they drew on their own scientific backgrounds in the development of our founding documents. To name but a few examples, Benjamin Franklin is famously remembered as a scientist, John Adams was educated in science and then there was James Madison, a member of the American Philosophical Society, a scientific society that Benjamin Franklin founded. Science was on their minds and the language of science comes through in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Pandemics naturally lead to heightened awareness of science, but the CDC wants us to forget the inaccurate reports and overly restrictive guidelines it has produced over the past six months. Scientists are not immune from making mistakes, of course, and, in this case, their mistakes have life-and-death consequences. The United States has been in varying stages of an extreme lockdown that has cost tens of millions of Americans their jobs and kept close to 50 million children out of classrooms for some length of time, and the CDC now plays an increasing role in shaping the lockdown.
At the same time that the CDC has waved off criticisms of its work in the sphere of science, the agency has jettisoned science in favor of a political program known as critical race theory training. American taxpayer dollars have been wasted across the federal government to train employees to see the entire world through racial thinking and to view White men as the ones constructing society (and how to push back against their dominance).
On Tuesday, President Trump directed the CDC to discontinue its critical race theory training, effective immediately, and the course has now been canceled. This is a win for conservatives, but, significantly, it is also a win for the CDC, whose credibility would have been further eroded if it had continued to stand behind racial-thinking “science.”
This episode is a powerful reminder of the accountability our Founders envisioned, and a lesson in the origins of our government’s authority. (Hint: The authority comes directly from the people.) The president has oversight of the executive branch, and the “but this is science!” excuse does not negate the need for accountability.
Science-based recommendations ought to evolve as we learn more and as the body of scientific studies grows. What we know about COVID-19 in September is starkly different from what we thought we knew in February. The extreme economic lockdown and the school closures today are based on out-of-date fears. The CDC has a duty to update its reports to reflect the latest information about risk, transmission and the failures of some of the COVID-19 tests. The scientific process demands it.
And, for that matter, so do the American people.
• Jenny Beth Martin is honorary chairman of Tea Party Patriots Act.