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Daily Memo

'Pandemic is over' — not just another Biden gaffe

'PANDEMIC IS OVER' — NOT JUST ANOTHER BIDEN GAFFE. Before his appearance on 60 Minutes Sunday night, President Joe Biden had not given a sit-down interview with an American journalist for seven months. It's easy to see why. On CBS, the president, who was known as a "gaffe machine" when he was a much younger man, kept up his tradition of saying something startling, weird, or newsworthy — and, sometimes, true.

This time, Biden made news by saying, "The pandemic is over." He was at the Detroit Auto Show, which interviewer Scott Pelley noted was the first held in three years. Then Pelley asked: "Is the pandemic over?"

"The pandemic is over,"Biden answered. "We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. It's — but the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one's wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it's changing. And I think this is a perfect example of it."

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Biden's words seemed like common sense to many. But in Washington, they set off an earthquake. And they could increase pressure on the federal government to make huge changes in policy very quickly.

The government has made massive expenditures since the pandemic began in March 2020. It has created new programs and amended existing programs on a large scale, all on an ostensibly temporary basis until the end of the pandemic. Now the president has declared the end of the pandemic. What next?

For example, the administration is trying to pass an additional $22 billion in COVID relief funding, on top of trillions in earlier pandemic spending. The plan was to get the new measure through Congress before the midterm elections. But now Biden says the pandemic is over. That has changed thinking on Capitol Hill. "Top Republicans, who were already skeptical about approving more Covid-19 relief money, said Monday that President Joe Biden's comments that the 'pandemic is over' essentially shut the door on the slim chances of more money getting approved," reported CNN.

"COVID aid is not going to happen," said Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who had been working on a deal. "Not with Republican votes." And if it doesn't happen with Republican votes, it's not going to happen. Some Republicans feel strongly that Congress has already spent too much on "pandemic relief," much of it unrelated to the pandemic at all, and they're ready to stop.

But the now-doomed $22 billion COVID bill is just one change stemming from the president's comment. On Monday night, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, sent a letter to Biden. The letter is a list of major policy changes the government has made since the beginning of the pandemic, followed by the question: What now?

"Despite Americans having largely returned to normal life, which you acknowledged when you noted that attendees at the Detroit Auto Show were not wearing masks, your administration continues to request un-offset emergency funding from Congress, enforce vaccine mandates, and maintain federal emergency declarations that cost taxpayers billions of dollars," Burr wrote.

From that came a number of questions. In the earliest days of the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. It wasn't just a statement. It was a legal move, and it involved several areas. "Trump declared a public health emergency under the Public Health Service Act on January 31, [2020], issued two national emergency declarations under both the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act on March 13 [2020], and invoked emergency powers via Executive Order under the Defense Production Act on March 18 [2020]," notes an account by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those were legal acts that remain in effect.

Is Biden declaring an end to all that? "When do you plan to terminate the Stafford Act and National Emergencies Act declarations related to the Covid pandemic response?" asked Burr. And what about the public health emergency? Do those edicts remain in effect, even after the president declared the pandemic over?

Then there is Medicaid. The Obama administration, with the passage of Obamacare, increased the number of people enrolled in the healthcare program for low-income Americans that is funded by both the federal government and the states. The number of enrollees shot up again during COVID so that now more than 1 in 4 Americans is on Medicaid. In addition, the federal government made it more difficult for states to remove people from Medicaid rolls even when their incomes increased enough to no longer be eligible. It is extremely expensive, adding $10 billion a month to federal costs. And it was all done on an "emergency" basis, and now Republicans want to know when it is going to stop. It's a little bureaucratic, but it's worth quoting this paragraph in Burr's letter in full:

States have been receiving a 6.2 percentage point increase in their Medicaid match rates in exchange for, among other things, agreeing to a prohibition on re-determining the income-based eligibility of beneficiaries. As a result of this policy, more than one in four Americans is now enrolled in Medicaid, placing an immense strain on the safety net program that should be focused on providing high quality care to the most vulnerable low-income Americans, particularly those with complex health and long-term care needs. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that nearly 13 million Americans who would otherwise make too much money for Medicaid are enrolled in the program — including individuals who have insurance through their employers — adding nearly $10 billion in federal Medicaid costs for each month the public health emergency is extended past September of 2022. Since the pandemic is over, how do you justify spending tens of billions to keep people on Medicaid who would otherwise make too much money to qualify for the program and already have employer-sponsored insurance?

There are other questions. What about vaccination requirements? Federal workers and contractors are required to prove they are vaccinated. Is that policy still in effect? When will it end? And what about masks? "Will the CDC revisit its masking recommendations associated with its Covid Community Levels?" asked Burr. And what about working at home? "Will you finally direct federal workers who were onsite prior to the pandemic to return to work in person?" asked Burr.

These are all serious questions. So far, however, the Biden White House is trying to spin its way out of answering questions. On Tuesday, a reporter asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to respond to Burr's letter and received a seven-paragraph response that did not answer a single question raised by the senator. "The president said, and he was very clear in his 60 Minutes interview, that, you know, COVID remains a problem and we're fighting it," Jean-Pierre said. "And we have to continue to make sure that we are fighting this once-in-a-generation pandemic."

Other Democratic politicians were no more clear. "COVID is not over," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), which is not the same as saying the pandemic is over. What Kaine meant was: We're keeping the programs in place. We're not going to stop spending. We want to spend still more. Many Democrats agreed.

Perhaps nothing will change immediately. But Biden's seemingly simple statement — "The pandemic is over" — underscored the complexity, reach, and expense of the federal government's response. This is not permanent, Republicans are saying. And Biden and Democrats are saying — well, that is not really clear. But if history is any guide, they will be loath to give up spending programs once they are in place.

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