Congress and the White House

“The Pandemic is over.”  A simple, straightforward statement.  Some would say obvious, some would say overdue.  Others would say premature, and others would label it as inaccurate.  President Biden’s statement on 60 Minutes Sunday night touched off a controversy with both policy and political ramifications.  The U.S. has been operating under a declaration of a public health emergency (PHE) since early 2020.  The PHE has been extended every few months since then.  The PHE declaration impacts funding levels for dozens of programs.  If the pandemic is over, is there a PHE?  The House of Representatives has been operating with proxy voting since the start of the pandemic – a highly controversial rule that allows House Members to vote remotely.  The explicit, stated reason for proxy voting is the PHE, and it also gets extended every few months.  A presidential statement in an interview is not necessarily official administration policy (If we didn’t already know that we certainly learned it during the Trump Administration).    But a presidential statement at odds with administration policy is awkward.

The controversary over Biden’s statement is illustrative of the larger debate over the U.S. response to the COVID pandemic.  The virus was novel and lethal and we didn’t know much about it at the start.  As we learned more, much of what we thought we knew turned out to be wrong – which should have been expected.  Extended efforts to curb normal human activity, like lockdowns, remote learning and work from home created stress, inequity and controversary – but the virus continued to spread and mutate.  So how does the public health community maintain the public’s trust when the facts are changing and the debates over the right response are fierce, but fair – there were costs and benefits to each policy decision and people naturally disagreed.  For many, Biden’s statement reflected reality – the country has moved on.  For others, it was premature – several hundred people a day are still dying from COVID and the country is just beginning a new vaccination push.  And because of significant distrust, many view the push to continue the PHE as attempt by the federal government to keep the money flowing and keep tighter control.  In the short run, the statement likely ended the limited chance that Congress would approve the administration’s request for an additional $22 billion in COVID relief.  In the longer run it raises the question of how best for the federal government to communicate honestly, effectively, and accurately during a public health emergency. 

The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee begins 2 days of meetings today where it is expected to raise interest rates by another 75 basis points – with the possibility of 100 basis points not out of the question.  There are signs of a cooling U.S> economy – particularly in the housing market, and very definitely signs of a global economic slowdown.  But the Federal Reserve has made clear that tamping down the inflationary cycle will remain its top priority moving forward. 

49 days until the midterm elections …


Biden Draws Criticism for Saying Covid-19 Pandemic Is Over

Some health experts say president’s declaration is premature, while Republicans say it shows Covid-19 policies need to change.  President Biden’s assertion that the pandemic is over is rankling both Republicans and some public health leaders who say it is premature to announce victory over Covid-19 and that the declaration could undermine the administration’s efforts to secure more funding from Congress.  The White House in September asked Congress for $22.4 billion for Covid-19 and the administration is pushing to include the money in a continuing resolution that must pass by Sept. 30 to keep the government running. Federal officials have said the funding is critical to help develop and purchase more durable vaccines that prevent transmission and breakthrough infections. Republicans have so far opposed any new appropriations, saying unspent Covid-19 relief funds should be tapped first.  The administration has also continued to renew a public-health emergency despite criticism from some Republicans who say it is no longer necessary. The declaration has provided the White House with additional flexibility to combat Covid-19. Some public health leaders say it is irresponsible to announce the pandemic is over because about 400 people are still dying daily from the virus, and up to 23 million Americans are living with long COVID, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Biden declared the pandemic 'over.' His COVID team says it's more complicated.  Biden's "60 Minutes" remarks surprised his own health advisers and came as the administration seeks more COVID response funding.  White House officials spent the better part of this year plotting a delicate, step-by-step process they hoped would guide the U.S. out of its pandemic era.  One element that was not part of that plan: President Joe Biden just coming out and saying it.  His declaration surprised the president’s own senior health officials, many of whom only learned about Biden’s remarks from tweets and news headlines. The president had not originally planned to make major news on COVID, nor had he discussed with his health advisers announcing an end to the pandemic soon, two senior officials said.  When the White House reviewed a transcript of his comments after the interview, which was taped earlier in the week, it did not alert its COVID team — leaving the administration without a coordinated response for the immediate aftermath.  In the hours since, health officials have privately and sarcastically applauded themselves for a job well done: After 20 months of round-the-clock work, they joked, all it took to end a once-in-a-century crisis was for Biden to declare it finished. Others argued that the time had actually come for such a declaration; that the virus is in a manageable state and Biden was simply putting in blunt terms where his administration has long been headed.

Fauci: “We are not where we need to be if we are going to quote ‘live with the virus’”.

Fauci’s comments follow remarks from President Joe Biden, who declared “the pandemic is over” during a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday evening. “We are not where we need to be if we are going to quote ‘live with the virus’ because we know we are not going to eradicate it,” Fauci said. “The next question we ask: ‘Are we going to be able to eliminate it from our country or from most of the world?’ and the answer is unlikely, because it is highly transmissible and the immunity that’s induced by vaccine or infection is also transient.”


The Economy

Fed’s Third Straight 0.75-Point Interest-Rate Rise Is Anticipated. 

Investors see a small chance of a bigger full-percentage-point increase.  The Federal Reserve is expected to approve its third consecutive interest-rate increase of 0.75 percentage point on Wednesday while signaling plans to raise and hold its benchmark rate above 4% in coming months to battle inflation.  Investors see a small chance of a larger rate rise of a full percentage point, or 100 basis points, at the Fed’s policy meeting Tuesday and Wednesday. A few analysts have said last week’s report showing high inflation could force central-bank officials to debate the merits of the larger move. But others think surprising the public with a larger rate rise could fuel questions over the central bank’s broader strategy and tactics.

Climbing Housing Costs Could Prop Up Inflation for a While

Economists say rents will eventually moderate. Question is when?  Rents and other shelter costs are emerging as a major driver of overall consumer inflation, keeping it high at a time when many other sources are starting to ease.  Economists expect housing inflation to strengthen further before cooling off in the coming months, but are unsure of when relief will appear. This creates another challenge for the Federal Reserve as it raises interest rates to reduce price pressures.  Overall annual inflation eased to 8.3% in August from 8.5% in July, according to the Labor Department’s consumer-price index. That reflected declines from the month before in prices for items such as gasoline, airfares, and used cars, and slower price increases in other categories, such as groceries.  Housing was an outlier. Not only are shelter costs rising, they are climbing at an accelerating pace, accounting for a growing share of the overall inflation rate—about 25% of August’s rate, up from about 20% in February.

Food Supply Stays Tight as Disappointing U.S. Harvest Adds to Global Challenges.

Agriculture executives say at least two years of bumper crops are needed to relieve pressure from drought and the war in Ukraine.  A lackluster U.S. harvest this year is setting back efforts to relieve a global food supply that has been constrained by Russia’s war in Ukraine, agriculture-industry executives said.  High temperatures this summer exacerbated drought conditions in the U.S. West and the country’s Great Plains. Intense heat in states such as Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma set in as corn crops were pollinating in many parts of the Grain Belt, when the plants require the most water. Some corn crops were also planted late this year after a wet spring, causing some yield loss, according to agriculture analysts.  The U.S. Agriculture Department on Sept. 12 lowered its nationwide corn-production estimate to 13.9 billion bushels, 3% lower than its August projection, and 8% below 2021’s total. Soybean production estimates this month were down 3% from a record projection in August, and down slightly from a year earlier. Agriculture advisory firm Professional Farmers of America Inc. last month cut its outlook for corn yields by 13% in Nebraska and 22% in South Dakota, compared with last year.

Arrests at Southwestern Border Exceed 2 Million in a Year for the First Time

The historic pace of undocumented immigrants entering the country continued as the Biden administration tried to steer clear of immigration issues with the midterm elections approaching.  For the first time, the number of arrests of undocumented immigrants along the southwestern border exceeded two million in one year, according to newly released government data, continuing a historic pace of undocumented immigrants coming to the country.  The number of arrests at the border increased slightly from July to August, with a total of more than 2.1 million for the first 11 months of the 2022 fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.  In an unusual step, Biden administration officials gave some reporters a background briefing on Monday before Customs and Border Protection’s routine monthly release of data. Officials noted that the number of removals over the past year — more than 1.3 million — was more than any previous year.

The administration in recent months has tried to steer clear of immigration issues as the midterm elections approach and Republicans campaign on the message that the border is unsecured.