Press Releases

Ranking Member Nadler Opening Statement for House Judiciary Constitution and Limited Government Subcommittee Hearing on “Liberty, Tyranny, and Accountability: COVID-19 and the Constitution”

Washington, DC, April 16, 2024

Today, Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening statement, as prepared, for the House Judiciary Constitution and Limited Government Subcommittee Hearing on “Liberty, Tyranny, and Accountability: COVID-19 and the Constitution”:

"Mr. Chairman, our former colleague, and current Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emmanuel, is often quoted as saying “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  I believe that my Republican colleagues think that this idea applies to the topic of today’s hearing.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a serious public health crisis, and four years later House Republicans are still attempting to capitalize on that global trauma for political gain. 

Today’s hearing is nothing more than a platform for extreme MAGA Republicans to spread skepticism of public health officials to advance the conservative persecution complex that has become the cornerstone of their political identity. 

Any reasonable reading of the facts from that time makes it clear that this portrayal is a bogus, politically motivated hit job.  Public health officials at the local, state, and federal levels are dedicated public servants, who at the time had to act on the limited information available, in response to a nationwide public health crisis. 

The facts demonstrate that they took reasoned, good faith actions in response to an infectious disease that, even to this day, quite literally continues to evolve.  I would note, however, that the House Judiciary Committee has no expertise on matters of public health policy or medical science. 

If the Republicans wanted a discussion about lessons learned from the Nation’s experience with COVID-19, I would welcome it.  As to whether officials had the authority to take the steps that they did, that authority was, and largely remains, broad, even after years of legal challenges stemming from the pandemic.

That is to say that, while individual constitutional rights are always in force, even during a public health emergency, the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

No legal right is absolute, and the Constitution itself accounts for the need for government to respond to protect the nation from serious threats.

Given the chaotic and uncertain circumstances in which they were operating, not every decision by a public health official may have struck the ideal balance between the need to protect public health and respect for individual rights.  That is why we have a court system. 

Nonetheless, overall, those public officials’ decisions were made in good faith and saved countless lives during a public health emergency involving a novel and rapidly spreading infectious disease that was killing more than 1,000 people a day in the early part of the pandemic, and which, so far, has killed more than a million Americans. 

Individuals may have varying tolerances for personal risk, but individual choices about vaccination, quarantining, masking, or other public health measures can also seriously affect other people’s health.

In particular, the most vulnerable members of our society are at risk during an event involving an infectious disease. This includes the very young, the very old, those with preexisting conditions, and the working poor, who historically lack access to health care and are disproportionately represented among ethnic and racial minorities.

According to the apparent viewpoint of extreme MAGA Republicans, the government should have done nothing during the pandemic to protect the public, while vulnerable Americans are left to fend for themselves.  That is not my idea of “freedom”.

This apparent callousness demonstrates that, for some of our colleagues, public health policy is just another angle from which to cast government officials as power hungry bureaucrats to suit their narrow political interests, no matter what the facts may be.

But while the MAGA Republicans may think that a revisionist hearing like this—relitigating the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic to recast it as a tyrannical power grab-is a political winner, there is, in fact, no winner.  Instead, the American people will lose.  

Politicizing public health policy has real consequences for the American people, even outside of a once-in-a-century pandemic.  One must look no further than the impact that vaccine skepticism has had on the spread of infectious diseases that we once thought contained but are now spreading again.

I would just write today’s hearing off as yet another MAGA extremist rant were it not for the corrosive impact on Americans’ trust in public health officials.  The American public deserves better than this hearing. 

I thank the witnesses, and I yield back."