The Imperative for Post-Pandemic Changes

The founding fathers did a great job writing the Constitution for the newly formed United States. But that was almost two and a half centuries ago and there’s simply no way they could have predicted the future of today. There are now 330 million people inhabiting their fledgling nation, with global flights and communications, vast production and consumption capabilities — and the subsequent planet-threatening pollution that came with mass industrialization.

And then came the coronavirus pandemic — a globe-spanning disease that has brought the nation to its knees, sent Congress fleeing the capital, and revealed just how unprepared we were to deal with it in so many ways. Now, as the old song says “change is gonna’ come.”

Right now, in the very midst of the greatest crisis to face the nation in a century, the House of Representatives and Senate are empty. After passing the 880-page, $2.2 trillion “relief” bill, senators and congressmen abandoned the normally packed confines of the capital, literally fleeing for their lives. With the halls empty — and which may remain empty for some time to come — the primary functions of Congress such as passing laws, appropriating money and providing oversight on the executive branch, are basically on hold.

Instead of serious deliberation on legislation, open debate and an informed public, we now have passage of massive measures that will cripple future generations with unbelievable debt being passed by “unanimous consent.” Since there’s almost no one there, it doesn’t take a lot of votes to be “unanimous.” And when it comes to the public having the ability to know what’s in those bills we, the people, are left totally in the dark.

As far as Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch goes, it’s about non-existent. If anyone doubts that, just look at Trump’s ongoing purge of independent inspectors general tasked with ensuring the enormous amount of money Congress appropriated for the pandemic would actually get spent in accordance with the law.

Obviously, one of the significant changes that must be made is Congress clawing back authority from the president and restoring the checks and balances upon which our system of government is founded. For more than two decades Congress has ceded its power to the White House to protect the “head” of their respective political parties. But now, with a president having exactly zero public policy or governance experience — and “running government like a business” — the need for change is inescapable.

Likewise Congress must figure out how to operate during pandemics since coronavirus will not be the last pandemic. Passing legislation by “unanimous consent” is fine for naming post offices, but not for dealing with challenges of the pandemic’s magnitude. Given our modern communication technologies, it’s time for Congress to get back to work in whatever new “format” it may take. We simply cannot leave the nation in the hands of one rather unhinged individual who is woefully inadequate for the job.

Nor can we ask people during a pandemic to show up in person to vote and taking the chance of “dying for democracy” as they just did in Wisconsin. And that change has to happen fast in this election year.

Make no mistake, we will not and cannot go back to “business as usual” because it isn’t working — not for democracy, not for the citizenry and certainly not for Congress. We’ll get through this, albeit not without tremendous suffering and loss. But we must acknowledge our failures in dealing with the pandemic — and make the significant changes necessary for whatever future crises challenge our people and nation.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.