Axios Pro Exclusive Content

GOP puts CDC's Cohen on the hot seat

headshot
Nov 30, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Mandy Cohen testifies before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee November 30, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies before the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

House Republicans put new CDC director Mandy Cohen on notice Thursday that they could overhaul some of her agency's operations if they find future public health responses lacking or not transparent.

Why it matters: Cohen's first appearance before Congress in her capacity offered a barometer of how much the pandemic response and the agency's acknowledged failure to respond efficiently to COVID-19 still hangs over the CDC's relations with the Hill.

  • But members on the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee also indicated they were willing to give the physician and former North Carolina health secretary time to put her own mark on the agency.

Driving the news: Republicans keyed on pandemic response decisions made during the tenure of Cohen's predecessor, Rochelle Walensky, and whether Cohen would make the same choices had she been at the helm.

  • "Would you impose those types of restrictions today?" asked Rep. Jeff Duncan, referencing mask and vaccine mandates, social distancing and school closures.
  • "The good news is we're in a new place. I'm looking forward to turning this new chapter with CDC as we look forward," Cohen responded.
  • "I want to make sure we're learning the lessons from the pandemic about transparency and about creating those infrastructures that we need to make sure that we can detect and respond to diseases."
  • Some potential reforms that GOP lawmakers floated included requiring the CDC to be formally authorized through legislation, revising how public health guidance is drafted, and changing what public health authorities the agency can wield.
  • Panel Democrats kept their questions focused on how the CDC is planning to handle the respiratory virus season and applauded Cohen's tenure in North Carolina and her recent efforts to promote vaccinations.

Go deeper: There was also concern about the recent wave of respiratory virus infections in China that have overwhelmed hospitals there and that officials have attributed to known pathogens like influenza.

  • "The lack of reliable information coming out of China is a troubling parallel to 2020," said E&C Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
  • Panel Republicans sent a letter Wednesday night to the CDC asking for information about the outbreaks and urging the agency to ensure that it is transparent with the American people.
  • "Based on the information we have now, we believe there is no new or novel pathogen, that these are related to existing pathogens, COVID, flu, RSV, micro-pneumonia," Cohen said.
  • "The Chinese officials have shared with us that there are no novel pathogens, and we were able to corroborate that information across other sources from our European Union partners and others to make sure that we're getting a complete picture," she added.

Context: Cohen has been making the rounds and trying to establish relationships with lawmakers, in what she's said is a push to rebuild trust in the CDC.

  • Health subcommittee chair Brett Guthrie said he had a positive meeting with Cohen and members of her team during a recent visit to the CDC.
  • Cohen has also reached out to members like Rep. Debbie Lesko, who's been an outspoken critic of vaccine and mask mandates and is also a member of the House select subcommittee on coronavirus.
  • Lesko posted on X about her meeting with Cohen on Wednesday, saying that "it is vital to learn as much about the agencies involved as possible and what steps they are taking to fix past mistakes and improve in the future."

The bottom line: Although the CDC may be opening a new chapter, Hill Republicans intend to scrutinize how the agency is run, including a plan to overhaul the organization's structure that Walensky launched.

  • This all comes amid funding fights on the Hill, where the House has put forward a Labor-HHS Appropriations bill that includes an 18% cut to the CDC.
  • McMorris Rodgers noted that Cohen may be the last CDC director to be appointed and not subject to the Senate confirmation process — a reform that was enacted in last year's omnibus and that takes effect in 2025.
Go deeper