The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged governments of every description across the globe, and it surely would have tested the mettle of any American administration. But the pandemic appeared in the United States at a particularly inopportune time. January 2020 marked the beginning of a presidential election year in a deeply polarized country. President Donald Trump was a controversial figure, beginning the fourth year of a highly idiosyncratic administration. He was both a candidate for re-election and the subject of an ongoing impeachment proceeding. In these circumstances, the pandemic quickly became politicized. President Trump's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has often been faulted for his lack of leadership, and for his refusal to “follow the science.” During the 2020 election, the Democrats sought to portray themselves as the “party of science,” touting their willingness to “follow the science,” and distinguishing themselves in that way from President Trump--whom they portrayed as someone who did not “believe in science.” That portrayal was not entirely fanciful. President Trump had long pursued policies that evidenced a disregard for science and other forms of expert knowledge, and he sometimes publicly and peremptorily rejected the advice of his scientific ad-visors during the pandemic. As this Article shows, however, the issue was more complicated than “following the science” or not. The president failed to demonstrate the leadership that the situation called for, and he seemingly lost all interest in the pandemic after he failed to win *16 re-election--even as the infection and death counts spiraled out of control. But the story of the federal government's missteps is about more than one man's vanity or even his attitudes towards science, governing, or electoral defeat. It also involves the government's scientific bureaucracy, and its relationship to the president and other political actors--matters that transcend the personalities or particularities of any specific administration. From the beginning of the pandemic, government scientists purported to speak with great authority, but their pronouncements were far from consistent. They instructed the public not to wear masks in the strongest possible terms, for example, and then reversed course with little explanation. They also failed in other tasks; they produced defective COVID-19 tests and then resisted making adjustments that would have produced accurate results. They were subjected to intense political pressures, and they sometimes gave in. The federal government's response to the pandemic involves failures by scientists and politicians, and implicates some of the most fundamental aspects of our constitutional system. First, the primary responsibility for public health rests with the states in our federal system, but the national government is constitutionally authorized to act in a national public health emergency. At the end of the day, however, the effectiveness of federal action may depend as much on the quality of the president's leadership and relationships with state officials (and, at least in times of extreme partisanship, on whether the president and state officials belong to the same political party), as on any specific constitutional or legal authority. Second, it is a commonplace that Congress makes the laws, while the president's role is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” For the federal government to respond effectively to a national health crisis, Congress must grant the president the legal authority to act, and the president must be willing to exercise the authority that Congress has given. That too depends on presidential leadership, and, at least in times of extreme partisanship, it may also depend on the respective party affiliations of the president and congressional majorities. Third, in several recent cases, the Supreme Court has enthusiastically endorsed the so-called “unitary executive” theory, which holds that the president must have strong chain-of-command authority over all administrative decisionmakers, regardless of how technical or inappropriate for resolution by short-term political calculation their work may be. On the other hand, governmental transparency and sound policy demand that policymakers and the public be able to recognize where scientific expertise ends, and politics begins. Finally, given the date currently set for presidential elections, the Twentieth Amendment ensures that a defeated or otherwise retiring president will retain all the power of the presidency for approximately ten weeks after a new president has been elected, regardless of how much political support or interest in governing the incumbent president may have. This Article explores the effects that each of these constitutional principles and understandings has had on the government's efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the effect that the government's performance with respect to the pandemic should have on how we think about these principles and theories. Those inquiries are particularly appropriate now, when the problems posed by political polarization, unconventional political leaders, and the public's need for the best available science are unlikely to disappear.
Lessons of the Plague Years,
Loy. U. Chi. L. J.
Available at: https://lawecommons.luc.edu/luclj/vol54/iss1/4