Friday News Roundup — February 28, 2020
The Covid-19 Big Picture; Reclaiming Congressional Authority; Plus News You May Have Missed
Good Friday morning and happy “leap weekend,” a reminder that we’re now two months into 2020. Some will say that time has flown by, others that it has dragged on, but this week’s events still showed no sign of slowing.
The world now stands at a tipping point in the Coronavirus Covid-19 outbreak. It is now clear that the concern is no longer “will the disease spread,” but “are we ready for its arrival?” Markets are poised for the largest sell off since the 2008 financial crisis, as the risk of major economic disruption grows alongside questions about central banks’ capacities to respond.
While attention has been focused on the Covid-19 crisis, there is cautious optimism about the US-Taliban ceasefire and pending deal to be signed in Qatar tomorrow. However, there is also growing concern about the situation in Idlib, Syria. Already a dire humanitarian crisis, the risk of conflict has grown as at least 33 Turkish military personnel were killed in an airstrike on their command post by what could only be Assad regime forces — or their Russian sponsors. At the same time, Turkish President Erdogan is threatening to release Turkey’s controls on the flow of Syrian refugees into the European Union.
In this week’s roundup, Dan looks at how there are common sense preparations for the Covid-19 outbreak, yet they’re drowned out by politics. Chris covers a new effort in congress to wrest back some of the institution’s powers and prerogatives, but questions if it’s going far enough. As always we wrap with news you may have missed, with Aida’s brilliant summaries.
Over the past week, the spread of the Covid-19 Coronavirus beyond China has demonstrated its pandemic potential. With the disease spreading through South Korea, Italy, and Iran, and with cases now reported on every continent except Antarctica, it is a matter of when, not if, we’ll begin to see direct impacts in the United States. Already, we have seen the impact on markets — the worst in a decade — as the economic impact of the disease’s disruptions have raised concerns about supply chain impacts and looming, if not already underway, recessions in China, Japan, Europe, and elsewhere.
It is worth noting that the impact we are seeing at this time is from the response to the disease, rather than the impacts of the disease itself. That is not to belittle its impact or the bravery of the medical professionals, first responders, public health officials, and epidemiologists on the front line. Nor are we to consider the very severe, and tragic, impact that it has on the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions. Still, just as with the seasonal flu, severe complications cannot be ruled out.
When it comes to your personal health, the best bet, as indicated by officials, is very similar to how we would avoid seasonal colds and flu. Wash your hands, eat well, wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick, wash your hands, get rest, and, in case I forgot to mention it, wash your hands. At the same time, given the impact we’ve seen of quarantines and other public health responses to local outbreaks of this disease, you should begin to think about what your plan would be should you have to shelter at home for a significant period of time. Don’t panic, don’t rush to stockpile, but think through what you, your family, and your pets would need for sustenance, safety, and sanity should you have to spend two weeks, a month, or more largely at home.
While common sense can prevail in our personal approach to dealing with this outbreak, it is already concerning to see how this crisis could test our institutions at a time where hyperpartisan politics weakens their efficacy. In The Atlantic, this week, there were two great pieces using the Covid-19 outbreak responses as windows into “the systems” in China and Iran. Zeynep Tufekci looks at China, and with acuity, she notes that while China’s political system was probably worst-suited to the initial detection and early response to the illness, it was probably best-suited for the wholesale isolation, containment, and quarantine measures that have been so heavily applied across the country. Graeme Wood looks at Iran, on the other hand, and sees a system that is able to respond to neither the initial stages nor the long-term course of an outbreak — yet sits at the crossroads of a region already weakened by myriad political, humanitarian, and security crises.
These authors’ analysis led me to think what might be written about the United States when someone might analyze our potential response. What would be said of the reduced faith in a range of institutions and experts at a time when they are needed most? Will American leaders be lauded for setting aside politics, partisanship, and ego, when it came time to ensure unity and public safety? Has the government, in a quest to address every potential crisis, become paradoxically too large and unwieldy to be effectively managed in times of crisis?
The economic impact will be as equally worthy of consideration as the governmental response. What lessons will we learn about resilience and sprawling global supply chains? About our reliance on China for so many basic goods and staples? What tools do policymakers have to address recession, and how will the authorities put in place post-2008 function in a potential global crisis?
Of course, since we are in an election year, there will be an impact on the course of the debate. Already there is discussion about what the economic impact could mean for President Trump’s campaign message about his economic leadership. With healthcare front and center in the political debates, expect to hear more, not less, of stories like this one, where a suspected coronavirus case resulted in thousands of dollars in hospital bills. Crisis leadership will be debated, while candidates, parties, and their shared campaigns must also consider how this changes their script.
Many of our institutions will be tested, along with our assumptions, should this crisis grow. At a time when some are rooting for democracies to fail, let us not forget that there will be those writing about how we met this test.
Congress: The First Branch
This week, the Rules Committee of the House of Representatives will hold a hearing on congressional authority vis-à-vis the executive branch. In a press release this week announcing the hearing, committee Chairman Jim McGovern stated the following: “For decades, one Congress after the next has abdicated its authority over fundamental matters like declaring war, rulemaking, and utilizing its power under the National Emergencies Act. It has happened regardless of which party controlled Congress or sat in the Oval Office. We cannot allow decisions that should have been made either solely by Congress or collaboratively between the legislative and executive branches to be made exclusively out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” While Chairman McGovern is correct in his basic diagnosis, even the broad spectrum of issues he laments congressional atrophy over does not cast a wide enough net.
When the Continental Congress first met in September of 1774, there was no framework for republican government in America. This congress did not even see itself as a government, moreso acting as a treaty organization between the several states acting in concert over tensions with the British Crown. By the time the Second Continental Congress declared independence from that same Crown in July of 1776, its members were forced to create an entirely new system of government that had no precedent in the annals of history. Thus, they wrote the Articles of Confederation, which created a national government with a structure not unlike that of the Continental Congress itself — a single, unicameral legislative branch in which each state received one vote regardless of population. There was no executive branch and no judicial branch, and the Congress held not even the power to levy taxes.
Less than eight years after this system was ratified by all thirteen states, members of Congress recognized that the system was bound for failure. In 1787, the states called for a convention ostensibly meant to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a more functional alliance among the states. Instead, delegates such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison scrapped the Articles entirely, opting instead to forge the Constitution of the United States. Recognizing the need for a stronger national government to bind the states together, the Framers set out to create a tripartite system, with each segment of the government established to check and balance the power of the others. After months of heated debate between delegates from north and south, east and west, they approved a system of government which has largely remained intact since.
Among the most contentious debates during the Constitutional Convention was the question of executive power. Delegates such as Hamilton favored a strong, monarchical executive that would serve a life term. Others favored an executive chosen by Congress itself, or even preferred no executive at all. The compromise achieved was a president who would serve four year terms, elected by an electoral college ideally comprised of respected and learned men from across the nation. The president would be limited in the scope of his powers, acting broadly as an agenda-setter and enforcer of the congressional will. In the early years of the republic, presidents largely abided by this vision. George Washington conducted treaty negotiations with Great Britain under the watchful eye of Congress, and James Madison even prosecuted the War of 1812 under robust congressional supervision. The nation faced serious challenges, but the government persevered.
Then came the Civil War. Although previous presidents had taken select actions without congressional pre-approval, Abraham Lincoln viewed the nation’s ultimate challenge as a justification for at least temporary expansion of the president’s powers. He suspended habeas corpus (over the objection of the federal judiciary), jailed journalists, and conducted the war effort largely heedless of Congress’ directions. In doing so, he preserved the nation and overcame the slave power, but he also set a precedent that less conscientious presidents would abuse in the century to come. In time, the powers Lincoln used to preserve the Constitution would come to threaten the very structure it created.
Immediately following the Civil War, presidents were content to let the system return to its status quo antebellum. Although Theodore Rossevelt harbored a more expansive view of executive power that his predecessors, it was his cousin Franklin who made good on this view. Utilizing the crisis of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt convinced a Congress dominated by Democrats to cede much of its power to newly-created facets of the executive bureaucracy. Much of Congress’ spending authority was placed on autopilot through expansive new social welfare programs, although Congress stopped Roosevelt from packing the Supreme Court in response to multiple unfavorable decisions from the justices. By the end of his term, Roosevelt had issued more executive orders than any previous president, expanded the executive bureaucracy to unprecedented levels, and held power for twelve years.
In the years since the end of the Second World War, presidential power has only expanded from that of the Roosevelt era. Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in foreign policy, where presidents have waged war without congressional oversight for 80 years. In fact, Congress has not declared war since 1942. Even tariffs, one of Congress’ earliest prerogatives and sources of revenue, have been abdicated to the president’s discretion in the name of “national security.” Intelligence agencies surveil innocent Americans without warrants, and even surveil the very congressional committees that are meant to exert oversight regarding their activities. Although Congress declined to allocate funding for the construction of the border wall proposed by President Trump, the president himself was able to divert funds from the Department of Defense to begin construction.
In essence, the presidency now carries with it many of the powers that the British Crown did at the time of the Revolution. While then the only remedy available to the people was armed rebellion, we now have a legislature that ostensibly represents our will. While it is an appropriate first stem for the House to hold a hearing on this issue, quick work must be made of asserting the authority vested in Congress by Article I. If the imperial presidency continues to seize power, the founders’ Congress will cease to exist at all.
News You May Have Missed
Due to millions of locusts, Pakistan’s crops are currently being destroyed, resulting in an emergency declaration. The infestation is spreading into South Asia and East Africa, and is believed to have resulted from heavy rainstorms of the 2018–2019 cyclone season that have allowed three generations of “unprecedented breeding.” China has announced it will help Pakistan by sending experts to create programs focused on controlling the locust population. Some researchers and experts have declared that in this instance, ducks are “biological weapons” due to their ability to eat more than 200 locusts per day, therefore, making them more effective than chickens — which can only eat around 70 per day. Their natural tendency to remain in groups also makes it easier for them to be controlled. However, there is worry that the ducks may not be suited to the extremely dry conditions of the region and that it may cause the first ever duck deployment government assistance program to fail.
Protesters at Lesbos and Chios escalated their actions against the decision to build migrant camps, which has resulted in over 60 people being hurt, the majority of them being police officers. Existing migrant camps are currently overcrowded and dangerous; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, called the camps “shocking and shameful.” Athens has promised to build new centers at Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos to solve this issue, it has been met with intense opposition by the local communities. Protestors blocked roads to the areas where the new sites are to be built, broke into a hotel where riot officers were staying, injuring at least 8, and threw rocks and other objects at the hotel windows. At one site, hundreds of riot officers were met with over 1,000 protestors that threw stones, breaking the helmets of many. The conservative Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has asked for people to remain calm and will be meeting with the regional governor and local mayors to resolve the issue. Meanwhile, there are also discussions of constructing a floating barrier on the sea between Greece and Turkey to deter migrants arriving by sea.
Among growing U.S. fears that Chinese candidate Wang Binyang may be elected as the head of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the U.S. has voiced its strong opposition. The United States has supported an alternative candidate, Singaporean Daren Tang, and has attempted to garner the support of other countries as well. While Beijing says it does not mind the competition — instead heavily investing in their own outreach to other countries — they have made clear their displeasure at the methods being used by the U.S., claiming it includes the idea of “Anyone but China,” blackmail, and threats of serious consequences toward the countries hesitant to support Wang. Meanwhile, the U.S. claims having Wang as the head of WIPO would help Beijing spread its “malign influence,” by giving China five top spots at specialized UN agencies (the U.S. currently has four). According to the 2019 Intellectual Property Rights Index, China has strengthened their IP protections, but still falls far behind Singapore and the United States. By early March, a single candidate will be voted on by the committee before the general vote takes place with all 192 of the UN member nations.
The hurried transfer of a judge in India who was critical of police and government responses in light of increased violence has caused public outrage and concern. While the Indian government insists the move was not politically motivated because the judge’s move was first announced nearly two weeks prior, many familiar with the process remain highly skeptical and claim “the language of the transfer order is not routine.” The UN Human Rights Council chief, Michelle Bachlet, called all Indian political leaders to conduct actions that would help prevent violence, which began as a protest against a controversial citizenship law that has steadily been changing and aimed against Muslims. As tensions continue to escalate, the violence that erupted on Sunday has upended the lives of dozens of people. Many victims have lost their homes in the attacks and while others are still waiting on the bodies of their deceased loved ones to be released. Among those facing the hate fueled attacks are journalists that have reported mobs approaching them and demanding to know their religion in an eerie comparison to the events of World War II.
The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.