Nov 7, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP's post-pandemic playbook

Illustration of an elephant trunk tearing away pieces of paper made up of various pandemic legislation.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden declared in September that the COVID-19 pandemic was "over." If Republicans win control of Congress, they'll demand U.S. policy reflects that conclusion.

Why it matters: The pandemic ushered in revolutionary changes to U.S. health and economic policy. While many pandemic-era restrictions have already been rolled back, a full reversion to pre-COVID governance would have profound consequences for American life.

What we're hearing: Republicans will push to dismantle a number of lingering pandemic policies, with the U.S. military's vaccine mandate among the priorities, according to multiple GOP aides.

  • The effort to topple the mandate is expected to include scrutiny of the process for granting religious exemptions and, if necessary, a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act to fully rescind it.
  • Also, don't count on Republicans approving the Biden administration's request for $22.4 billion in COVID funding if a package doesn't pass in the lame duck session.

The big picture: A constellation of House committees is planning a multi-pronged effort to draw down the nation’s pandemic posture.

Energy & Commerce: A GOP committee aide told Axios that returning to "normal" is a priority, namely by ending the public health emergency, stopping unnecessary pandemic spending, and reversing any worker COVID mandates.

  • Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top Republican on the committee, has repeatedly called for the Biden administration to provide a plan to unwind the public health emergency.
  • The aide also said the panel's COVID top oversight targets are the virus' origins, policies around school shutdowns, and Democrats' pandemic spending.

Oversight: This committee would be the hub of GOP-led investigations, including probes into several ongoing pandemic policies and COVID’s origins, according to a committee aide.

  • This week, committee members were briefed about the alleged mass rejection of religious exemptions to the Coast Guard's vaccine mandate.
  • The panel will also likely investigate expanded federal government teleworking policies put in place during the pandemic.

Education & Labor: A list of COVID-related oversight targets provided to Axios includes relief money to schools, lost learning from school closures, government teleworking policies, pandemic-era child nutrition regulations, and the public health emergency.

  • The list also says Republicans will seek to block efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to implement a permanent health care industry standard on COVID.
  • "During the pandemic, the Biden administration took unprecedented authority—and now it doesn’t want to give any of it back," Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the panel’s top Republican, said in a statement. "I will do everything I can to loosen President Biden’s grip on powers that do not belong to him."

Ways & Means: Republicans are getting creative to claw back leftover COVID aid, pressing a handful of states with outstanding federal unemployment trust fund loans to pay back what they owe with unused American Rescue Plan money — rather than spend it on projects Republicans say amount to "waste and abuse."

  • In their efforts to crack down on inflation, Republicans also plan to block any efforts to make COVID-era aid programs — like expanded unemployment insurance and the Child Tax Credit — permanent.
  • Committee spokesperson J.P. Freire told Axios the trillions spent on stimulus "would have been unheard of prior to COVID, but COVID made that number less conspicuous."

Foreign Affairs: Republicans on this committee and others are planning a joint investigation into the continued awarding of grants to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit whose work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology has come under scrutiny, committee staff told Axios.

Zoom in: Republicans also plan to dismantle the House's own remaining internal COVID safety mechanisms, according to senior GOP aides.

  • That includes eliminating proxy voting on floor votes and scaling back the ability of members to participate in committee remotely, including remote voting during committee markups.
  • It would also involve removing remaining restrictions on Capitol visitation and returning the building to pre-pandemic levels of public access.

What to watch: Even before the next Congress is sworn in, Republicans will mount a push against the Biden administration's pandemic policies in the form of a resolution to end the national emergency declaration on COVID.

  • The resolution, introduced by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) after Biden's comments in September, is set to be voted on when the Senate returns to session the week of Nov. 14, Marshall's office told Axios.
  • The House didn’t take up that bill when it last passed the Senate in March, but a Republican-controlled House will, GOP aides say.

What they're saying: "After nearly three years of living under this state of emergency, the American people are worn out and yearning to breathe free," Marshall said in a statement to Axios.

  • "Considering Joe Biden said COVID is over, it’s high time to stop talking about restrictions and the unknown. We must chart a new course to victory that respects the virus and our freedoms."
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