Warning that the Trump administration's ongoing interference with the work of government experts during the coronavirus pandemic is "putting lives in jeopardy," a pair of Democratic senators on Tuesday unveiled legislation that would establish an independent body tasked with investigating and uncovering any political meddling at America's public health agencies.
Introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Science and Transparency Over Politics (STOP) Act would create a pandemic task force with a mandate to conduct "a thorough investigation into any political interference with decisions made by scientific agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services in connection with the pandemic response."
"America will not defeat this virus if people do not have confidence that treatments, vaccines, and guidance are approved with only public health goals in mind."
—Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
Over the course of its investigation—which would include a probe of communications between the White House and public health agencies—the task force would be authorized to release any information it determines to be in the public interest or crucial for public safety. Members of the task force would be appointed by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, an independent oversight panel established under the CARES Act.
"It is painfully clear that the Trump administration won't stop the political interference which is threatening our response to this pandemic... so it is up to Congress to act," Murray said in a statement. "We need transparency and accountability from top to bottom, and we need it now—before it is too late to prevent more costly mistakes."
Murray framed the new bill (pdf) as a way to force Senate Republicans to either support the investigation or face backlash for doing nothing in the face of the Trump administration's encroachment on the work of government scientists amid a deadly pandemic.
"You cannot be for science if you're silent about political interference in our pandemic response," said Murray.
It's clear that the Trump Admin won’t stop the political interference which is threatening our response to this pandemic and putting lives in jeopardy on its own, so it is up to Congress to act.
— Senator Patty Murray (@PattyMurray) September 22, 2020
The bill, which is co-sponsored by 32 members of the Senate Democratic caucus, comes in the wake of several recent steps taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that lawmakers and experts viewed as evidence of political manipulation by Trump administration officials.
On Monday, as Common Dreams reported, the CDC abruptly retracted guidance acknowledging that the coronavirus is airborne and can be spread through tiny droplets known as aerosols, a form of transmission that many scientists have been warning about for months.
"The CDC just published scientifically valid information and then pulled it off their website and this is very likely a scandal," Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a co-sponsor of the STOP Act, tweeted in response to the move.
Emphasizing the extent of the Trump administration's efforts to seize greater control of the work of public health agencies, Murray's office pointed to several other examples reported within the past month:
- September 18: The New York Times reports that Secretary Azar has barred the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from signing any new rules without his approval.
- September 18: The New York Times and Washington Post report further on how Trump administration political appointees tried to silence Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) experts.
- September 15: Politico expands on previous reporting to note that Secretary Azar overruled the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when Azar moved to loosen oversight of Covid-19 testing and allow unreliable tests to flood the market.
- September 14: The New York Times reports that the spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services has promoted false conspiracy theories about the work of experts and scientists at the nation’s public health agencies.
- September 12: The New York Times reports that the Trump administration pressured officials at the FDA and National Institutes of Health (NIH) to authorize convalescent plasma therapy before their review of its safety and effectiveness were complete.
- September 11: Politico reports that politically appointed Trump administration officials demanded oversight of reports from CDC experts, and have worked to edit and append findings from CDC experts in its flagship scientific publication, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
"The Trump administration is still pushing the president's political priorities rather than following the science to defeat this virus," Schumer said in a statement. "We simply cannot trust this administration to protect the American people, which is why Congress must step in."
"America will not defeat this virus if people do not have confidence that treatments, vaccines, and guidance are approved with only public health goals in mind," added Schumer. "That confidence has been shaken, but this bill is a first step to restoring it."