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There were some really phenomenal Sept. 11 retrospectives on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Some, like mine, cut towards the personal and reflective.
Others took a more critical eye to the past. One example was Politico, which interviewed 17 Americans who helped shape our nation’s response. They asked the hard question: What did these folks think they got wrong?
It’s a great question to ask. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic will play a similar role in our nation’s history. Our immediate zeal to respond may have unforeseen downstream effects.
That is why it is worth hearing what past officials thought they got wrong during our last national life-and-death crisis.
One example, unsurprisingly, is the Iraq War. Former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle wished they had tapped the brakes before authorizing force, even in the face of strong public support. Former GOP Senate leader Trent Lott wished they had pushed the administration harder on the intelligence supporting their case.
Examining the lead-up to Iraq will be the stuff of research for decades to come, far beyond the scope of a newspaper column. But Daschle and Lott’s perspective should be turned towards some of the current White House administration’s initiatives.
President Joe Biden announced last week that OSHA would be issuing a rule requiring vaccination in most American workplaces or weekly testing. It is a remarkable attempt at massively expanding Washington’s authority.
This isn’t to say people should avoid the vaccine. Everyone should absolutely get it. Employers should be free to make it a condition of employment. Businesses should be allowed to inquire as to their customers’ status before inviting them into places of work.
But if OSHA has the authority to require a COVID vaccine, does it have the ability to require a flu vaccine? It doesn’t now. OSHA requires employers to make available a Hepatitis B vaccine to employees who might reasonably be exposed, but does not mandate their use.
Turn to a different public health issue. Smoking kills more people than COVID, averaging 480,000 Americans every year. But OSHA doesn’t regulate smoking in the workplace. Those laws are passed by each state, shaped to their particular concerns and needs.
Biden’s rush to “do something” is politically understandable. His administration’s unequivocal failure to orderly exit Afghanistan caused political allies to question his leadership. Daily COVID case counts spiked, nearly reaching the levels seen in November and December last year. Together, these sunk his approval rating, placing it underwater for the first time in his presidency.
Like his predecessor George W. Bush and Iraq, Biden has public support to “do something.” It is pretty politically perilous for Congress to push back and question something so seemingly popular.
Yet that is exactly what is called for. Every time Washington takes a little more authority for itself — even in the face of a crisis — and supplants the role of our states, we damage the foundation of our nation.
Both Rep. Jared Golden and Sen. Susan Collins expressed skepticism about Biden’s mandate. It is a politically dangerous road to take. Yet, fundamentally altering the federal government’s role in our daily lives is not something that should be done lightly.
Everyone should get vaccinated. But it shouldn’t be decreed by OSHA upon threat of penalty. Questions around mandates — be they masks or vaccinations — should be handled at the state level. Like tobacco use. Or voting. Or education.
Because “states” still features prominently in our nation’s name.