Hardball: Biden admin to leverage federal funds, regulatory power to push vaccine mandates

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

If you’re a fan of vaccine mandates, you’ll wonder what took Joe Biden so long to flex federal muscles to force the issue. If, on the other hand, you’re a fan of limited government and opposed to arbitrary use of federal power, you’ll … still wonder what took Joe Biden so long. The Washington Post reported last night that the White House will now look at ways to leverage regulatory enforcement and federal funds to, ah, incentivize institutions:

The Biden administration is considering using federal regulatory powers and the threat of withholding federal funds from institutions to push more Americans to get vaccinated — a huge potential shift in the fight against the virus and a far more muscular approach to getting shots into arms, according to four people familiar with the deliberations.

The effort could apply to institutions as varied as long-term care facilities, cruise ships and universities, potentially impacting millions of Americans, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.

The conversations are in the early phases and no firm decisions have been made, the people said. One outside lawyer in touch with the Biden administration on the issue is recommending that the president use federal powers sparingly.

Riiiiiiight. Democrats aren’t exactly well-known for using federal powers sparingly. Many of them ran in 2020 on the Green New Deal, a plan that would shift massive power to the federal government throughout the entire economy. That plan relies on precisely the kind of strong-arm regulatory and funding power that the Washington Post reports being under consideration for a vaccine-mandate push.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that Biden’s willing adopt a little more force in pushing for vaccine mandates. This might be all Biden can do in that regard, in fact. While some are calling for a flat-out vaccine mandate on all Americans, Biden has no authority to impose one as such. (Unless John Roberts calls it a tax … shh!)  Biden will have enough trouble imposing mandates on federal workers, as his union pals have reminded him over the past week or so. Even governors and mayors won’t be able to legally enforce such mandates, which is why we’re seeing leaders like Bill de Blasio urge businesses to enforce vaccine mandates and vaccinated-only access to services. If the Post’s report is accurate, this is yet another way in which government can leverage its power to push businesses in that direction.

One big question here isn’t whether Biden’s willing to use funding and regulatory threats to get his way. It’s whether it’s too late in this variant wave to matter if he does:

Several experts noted that even if Biden’s team could force Americans to begin getting shots as soon as this week, it still takes five to six more weeks for mRNA inoculations — which require a second shot — to be fully effective. That means infection rates could keep rising in the short term no matter what steps are taken on vaccinations.

Another larger question is whether it will prove counterproductive. All of the scary talk about Delta has had an impact on vaccine uptake on a voluntary basis. A month ago, the 7-day moving average of vaccinations was at 434,000, its lowest point in 2021. That has risen to 583,000 in the latest CDC reporting, not exactly a rush to get inoculated but that’s been increasing steadily over the last four weeks.

If the White House and state governments start using heavier-handed measures, however, the strategy might backfire. In fact, it may have already begun to erode compliance at the margins:

But such drastic moves are likely to trigger further backlash from many Republican-leaning regions where vaccine hesitancy has been highest, agitating conservatives already skeptical of the Biden administration and its use of federal power. …

About a third of Americans are unvaccinated, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. About a quarter of them reported that they plan to get vaccinated by the end of the year, according to the organization’s July survey, which was released this month.

The survey also found that about three percent of Americans would get vaccinated only if required to do so for school, work or other activities. That’s down from June, when 6 percent of Americans indicated they would get the shot if required.

That’s almost certainly within the margin of error, but it certainly indicates that mandate compliance hasn’t grown over the past two months of Delta-variant doom and gloom. And there are good reasons to be skeptical of the Biden administration’s use and abuse of federal power — especially after Biden’s defiance of a Supreme Court order on another pandemic-related policy in the eviction moratorium. About the only upside to this for Biden would be to peel off the conservative refuseniks from the liberal/progressive refuseniks and the ethnic refuseniks, all of which make up the diverse quilt of vaccine holdouts.

It seems a safe bet that Biden will at least use federal funding as leverage, which will be somewhat less legally fraught than arbitrary exercises of regulatory enforcement as a punishment for those not getting on board with vaccine mandates. That’s an approach we’d expect Democrats to take on practically any other agenda item, and the pandemic is too politically fraught for Democrats to have Biden restrict his efforts to pleading for people to make wise choices and get vaccinated.