Mitt Romney Yields to the Public-Health Bureaucracy

Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) questions Xavier Becerra during his Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., February 23, 2021.
(Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

When the Senate voted 57–40 earlier this week to repeal the mask mandate on public transportation, one senator was conspicuously absent from the majority. It was Mitt Romney, who joined 39 Democrats in voting no. Romney reportedly justified his vote on the grounds that the CDC’s guidance should not be second-guessed by politicians. On this point he has aligned himself with the Biden White House, which threatened a veto because mask mandates “should be guided by science, not politics.”

Even in pre-pandemic times, when Americans held the public-health establishment in higher esteem, Romney’s technocratic attitude would be unwise. Any regulation of individual behavior, such as a mask mandate, involves a set of trade-offs that can be resolved only by the public’s subjective weighting of different factors. There is no objective, expert, or apolitical answer to the question of when the potential reduction in viral transmission outweighs the discomfort of masks.

Of course legislators have a duty to collect as much factual evidence as they can from experts, but they also have a duty to consider that evidence against a broader set of goals that cannot be prioritized by simply appealing to “The Science.” That’s why we have elected representatives in the first place.

Romney’s deference is even more troubling given that the CDC and related public-health advocates have been anything but apolitical over the last two years. From selling interminable restrictions as “15 days to flatten the curve” to making an exception for Black Lives Matter protesters to slow-walking school reopening at the behest of teachers’ unions to downplaying natural immunity and monoclonal antibody treatments to mandating mask theater — e.g., wear a mask while walking through a restaurant but take it off at your table — the public-health establishment has pursued a symbolic, enforce-the-narrative approach to public health, influenced at least as much by political considerations as by objective data.

In fact, the lack of objective data is perhaps the most regrettable part of the CDC’s behavior. A useful scientific agency would honestly lay out what we don’t know, such as the effectiveness of mask mandates, and then fund controlled experiments to improve our knowledge. But too often the CDC has first declared the answers to important questions and then pushed low-quality observational studies to “prove” them after the fact.

The lesson here should be obvious. When we allow experts to make inherently political decisions, then the experts will act like politicians. That some members of Congress still don’t understand this — that they stillTrust The Science” — is, frankly, appalling.

Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.