In case you wonder whether elections matter at this late date in the republic, there was a startling bit of confirming evidence this week.
In response to the House scheduling a vote to terminate the public health emergency (and national emergency) associated with COVID-19, Team Biden announced on Monday that they were going to phase out and eventually terminate both emergencies on May 11. Does anyone think that would have happened (and happened that way) if the House hadn’t scheduled its vote this week?
As Rep. Nancy Pelosi is fond of reminding us, elections have consequences, and politics is about getting and keeping the initiative. In all the noise since the election, it is easy to lose track of how much Team Biden has been responding to the House Republicans rather than driving its own agenda.
Trying to upstage the House vote on the COVID-19 “emergency” was a clear example of that.
So is the debt ceiling tussle. A couple of weeks ago, the Treasury Department announced that the debt ceiling had been reached. The timing of that announcement surprised many who were (rightly) expecting it a few months from now, after and not before the commencement of “extraordinary measures.”
Accelerating the announcement and trying to nurture a sense of crisis was a transparent effort by Team Biden to complicate and retard Republican efforts to exact spending concessions in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. It is likely to fail.
Mr. Biden himself has headed to the southern border and suddenly become concerned about illegal border crossings, even to the point of hosting an awkward meeting with Border Patrol agents.
The administration is eager enough to regain its footing that the White House has been talking seriously about declaring yet another public health emergency, this time in response not to a virus but to a Supreme Court ruling.
If all of this feels a bit like flailing, that’s because it is. Team Biden has not yet figured out how to play defense.
The Statement of Administration Policy on the House COVID-19 legislation is a pretty good example of that. Here’s what they argued: “First, an abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans.”
“Second, the end of the public health emergency will end the Title 42 policy at the border. While the Administration has attempted to terminate the Title 42 policy and continues to support an orderly lifting of those restrictions … [e]nactment of H.R. 382 would lift Title 42 immediately, and result in a substantial additional inflow of migrants at the Southwest border.”
In other words, Congress shouldn’t extinguish the public health emergency now because it will be disruptive to the health care system and to the states, not because COVID-19 is still a public health emergency. Oh, and by the way, it will lead to a surge in illegal border crossings, which until about 10 minutes ago, the administration argued wasn’t happening, and if it were happening, it wouldn’t be a problem.
The statement closes on an incomprehensible note by describing the House legislation, which simply acknowledges what the administration has itself already acknowledged — that COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency — as “a grave disservice to the American people.”
At the same time that they issued their unhinged statement on the House legislation, Team Biden could be found in various courts arguing the pandemic justifies mask mandates, vaccine mandates, and whichever one of their student loan cancellation policies is the current flavor.
It’s going to be tough to continue to argue for those policies in various courts with a straight face while at the same time telling Congress not to worry because the emergency is already over, and the administration is just giving states a couple of months to adjust.
Coordinating this sort of thing and playing solid defense is not terribly complicated. But for an overmatched and sometimes hysterical Biden administration, coordination has proven difficult.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, co-hosts “The Unregulated Podcast.” He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.