Pelosi: The CDC hasn't mandated mask use yet because it might offend Trump, or something

Pelosi: The CDC hasn't mandated mask use yet because it might offend Trump, or something

Oh, I don’t know — maybe they haven’t because they all but mandated against mask-wearing for weeks? Or could it be that neither the CDC nor the president have the authority to issue a “mandate” in the first place? Nancy Pelosi doesn’t answer either of those issues, but she went on a campaign yesterday to lay the blame for mask-wearing defiance at the feet of both Donald Trump and the CDC.

Pelosi might have a case on the latter, but it’s not the one she made on ABC’s This Week. Pelosi, complete with mask at her neck, said the CDC only issued a “recommendation” for mask wearing because a mandate would have offended Trump:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is it time to mandate the wearing of masks across the country?

PELOSI: Oh, definitely long overdue for that. And my understanding, that the Centers for Disease Control has recommended the use of masks, but not to demand — required it, because they don’t want to offend the president.

And the president should be example. You know, real men wear masks. Be an example to the country and wear the mask, not only to pro — it’s not about protecting yourself. It’s about protecting others and their families.

Before we even get to the question of authority, let’s first speak to the issue of credibility. Speaking as an early adopter of mask-wearing, the CDC shredded its credibility on this issue in the first few weeks of the pandemic. Fearing a run by consumers on commercially available masks, the CDC, WHO, and other health agencies insisted that masks not only didn’t help, they might actually create bigger issues in the COVID-19 outbreak. Only after mask production ramped up did they change their position, and even then only grudgingly — and only after elected officials began to ignore their previous position and urge people to mask up.

Since then, people have attempted to chalk this up to a “noble lie,” but the problem is that it’s still a lie. If they lied for their own motives earlier, why should people trust them now? If it was a mistake earlier, people might understandably wonder if their new position is a mistake now, too.

It’s still a good idea to wear a mask, however, as several studies have suggested that universal mask usage would drastically cut into retransmission rates. It’s an easy step to take for reopening the economy, practically cost-free. But the CDC has no authority to mandate public policy except when it comes to travel in and out of the country and between states. And the reason for that is the federal government has the same limitations, except under very specific conditions, as Time Magazine explained during the Ebola outbreak six years ago:

Imposing a quarantine—effectively stripping innocent people of the most basic right to move freely in the world—is one of the most serious actions a government can take against its own citizenry. Partly for this reason, in the American federal system (designed from the outset to check the power of the national government) the power to quarantine resides largely with state and local authorities. Should Texas, or any other state, someday face the threat of a true epidemic, the states have broad authority to restrict the movement of people within their own borders. Public health codes granting the state power to impose quarantine orders vary from state to state, of course. Violating a quarantine order in Louisiana is punishable by a fine of up to $100 and up to a year in prison; in Mississippi the same infraction could cost a violator up to $5000 and up to five years in prison.

The federal government does have its own powers. The CDC, as the U.S.’s primary agency for taking action to stop the spread of disease, has broad authority under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to restrict travel into the country and between states of an infected person or a person who has come in contact with an infected person, according to Laura Donohue, director of the Center on National Security and the Law at Georgetown Law School. Federal quarantine can be imposed, too, on federal property, like a military base or National Forest land. And as the preeminent employer of experts on public health crises, the CDC is always likely to get involved within any affected state in the event of a looming pandemic.

But its power to act is extremely restricted. The agency traditionally acts in an advisory role and can only take control from local authorities under two circumstances: if local authorities invite them to do so or under the authority outlined in the Insurrection Act in the event of a total breakdown of law and order.

That’s not just the CDC’s obstacle, either, as Allahpundit noted on Friday when Joe Biden bleated about imposing a federal mandate. The president would have to declare an Insurrection Act authority nationwide to order the wearing of masks. Needless to say, if Donald Trump declared such an emergency and that authority, Democrats would go nuts over the abuses of power it would represent and create. And they’d be correct to do so, too.

Let’s put it this way: if the federal government had the authority to impose a nationwide mandate to wear masks, why hasn’t Pelosi put forward a bill to impose it? That authority would have to be statutory as well as regulatory if it exists at all. The fact that Pelosi hasn’t proposed any such bill shows how nonsensical her claim is — and how much she knows that it’s nonsensical, too.

Governors and mayors do have that authority, and some of them are beginning to flex that muscle. However, that itself has a credibility issue, as most of them were silent on the mask issue during the massive protests and riots following the killing of George Floyd. The lackadaisical attitude toward mask-wearing is the result of leadership squandering its credibility on many levels in the midst of two crises this year.

Pelosi does have a point when she criticizes Trump for not wearing a mask as a way to promote healthy social interactions. It would help immensely if Trump set a better example. Somehow, though, I think that Trump’s not terribly concerned about Pelosi’s estimation of what makes a “real man” in any context, including this. If Pelosi’s hoping to reach conservatives with that argument, er … good luck with that, Madame Ice-Cream Hideout Speaker.

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