As COVID-19 vaccinations begin across the United States, controversy has erupted over who is the first to receive their shots. In the political world, much of this ire has been directed at Congress, where all members are first in line to be vaccinated. This is regardless of their age, health, or political affiliation. A variety of complaints have arisen from this. Some have said that only at-risk members should receive the vaccine. Others have said it’s not right for members who have dismissed COVID’s seriousness to receive the vaccine before vulnerable Americans.
But these criticisms are misguided. Congress does essential work, and in the coming weeks they will be taking incredibly important votes. It is not practical to only vaccinate some members of Congress. It must be all or nothing. Partial vaccination for members raises ethical and practical challenges that do not outweigh the benefits of delaying shots to members who are lower risk.
The first reason why selective vaccination of Congress would be foolish is the practical challenges it would incur. For example, would vaccinated members be forced to quarantine if exposed to COVID? If the answer is no, then this could create situations where vaccinated members have an advantage over their unvaccinated colleagues. They could be present for more votes and have an outsized influence on legislation especially on committees with fewer members.
Of course, Congress could still try to force vaccinated members to quarantine if exposed, but this would be imperfect at best. Party leadership (especially in the Senate) would have an incentive to let their members break quarantine. Because experts believe the vaccines likely prevent transmission of the virus as well as infection, leadership would not be taking a large risk by permitting vaccinated but exposed members to roam freely.
Partial vaccination also raises the question of if vaccinated members are allowed to break other congressional rules on things distancing and mask-wearing. Mitch McConnell, for example, has publicly stated that he will continue to engage in and encourage such practices even after being vaccinated. But it is unclear if other members will follow suit. Additionally, this situation would create perverse incentives for the staffers of vaccinated members. Staffers are typically young and low-risk, so if their high-risk boss gets the vaccine it would likely lead to more rule-breaking and careless behavior. This would in turn encourage the same behavior from staffers whose bosses have not yet acquired a vaccination. That could raise the chances of a serious outbreak at the Capitol even as the distribution of vaccines continues.
Lastly, if vaccinated members were able to break these rules, it would give a built-in advantage to low-risk members who have connections outside of Congress. Kelly Loeffler is only 50 years old but is immensely wealthy. She would likely be able to secure a vaccine before her colleagues who hail from less fortunate backgrounds. This would create an unnecessary divide in Congress and unfairly advantage members based on wealth and connections.
One course of action (suggested even by some members such as Ilhan Omar) is that only high-risk members should get the vaccine. Other members should wait like normal Americans. But this creates more problems than it solves. There are many shades of gray between truly high-risk members like Dianne Feinstein (who is 87) and low-risk members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who is 31). Would members who turned 65 a month ago be vaccinated, while 64-year-old members are shut out of a vaccine? How would Congress go about determining the severity of every members’ pre-existing conditions (if they have them)? Who would determine who is vulnerable enough to receive a shot? Would it be leadership? A committee? The CDC? Would members with large partisan followings (even if they are low-risk) receive doses publicly in front of members with similar risk levels to build public confidence?
For example, AOC has a large fan base among young Americans who are unlikely to have a serious case of COVID. Having her publicly praise the vaccine after receiving it would no doubt raise confidence among this group and encourage them to get vaccinated. But should she be able to jump the line even though her risk is low? These are the tough questions Congress would face if only some members were able to receive the vaccine.
Furthermore, this would raise questions of political bias. Of the 55 Senators over the age of 65, 30 of them are Republicans. Of the 160 House members over the age of 65, 99 are Democrats. Partisans with ill intentions could weaponize either of these discrepancies to create accusations of bias and reduce confidence in the vaccine. Americans would quickly come to see distribution in Congress as a fight over which party the administrators favored for shots, a disastrous development for the country’s quest to beat COVID-19.
Another proposal floated is to withhold the vaccine from members who downplayed the threat of COVID and put them at the back of the line. It is hard to overstate how terrible of an idea this is. Withholding medical treatment solely based on past political statements is ethically dubious at best and intentionally cruel at worst. Vaccine distribution is not a tool to punish those society deems unworthy and reward the righteous.
For vaccines to work, everyone needs to take them, and withholding them based on politics serves no epidemiological purpose. The virus and people’s risk of complications from it are blind to politics. The goal of the vaccine is to end the pandemic. Because that is the case, punishing people for past statements serves no purpose except a twisted sense of revenge. Those past statements will ideally never be relevant again because the virus will be either eradicated or very rare. The entire stunt would only prolong the nation’s suffering.
On top of that, it sends a harmful message. Most politicians who have been skeptical of virus mitigation measures are Republicans. Withholding the vaccine from them because of their past statements would tank public confidence in the vaccine. It would, in no uncertain terms, torpedo the country’s efforts to get the virus under control. It would politicize vaccine distribution at a time when bipartisan acceptance of the vaccine is of paramount importance. Not to mention the difficulty of determining who views are “in violation” enough to be prevented from receiving the vaccine.
Would the CDC scour every Congressmen’s social media and public statements? Would there be a body that determines when a member crossed a line in terms of their views? And would this process take into account the recency of the statements and if a member’s views had changed? How long would the process take? Would health authorities bar high-risk members from vaccination or would this only apply to low-risk members? The impracticality, stupidity, and cruelness of this proposal simply make it something not worth entertaining.
Even if Congress should all be vaccinated at once, the question of “Why?” remains. Many would argue that Congress simply is not essential enough to receive universal vaccination so early. But this is untrue. In the coming especially, Congress will be taking critical votes – not just on the stimulus package but on the electoral college as well.
There are already rumors that some Republicans will challenge the electors from a host of Biden won states. These challenges are unlikely to succeed, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans only narrowly controlling the Senate (if at all after the Georgia runoffs). Both chambers have to reject the slate of electors for them to be invalid, and any challenges are highly unlikely to succeed.
But imagine a situation where a large chunk of Congress has not been vaccinated against COVID-19. Days before the vote, an outbreak sends a host of unprotected Democratic members into quarantine. If their absence caused Congress to reject Biden electors, it would plunge the country into an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Even if a hypothetical outbreak did not change the outcome of the votes, the absence of a significant number of Republican lawmakers could further reduce confidence in the outcome of the election and allow the President another avenue by which to challenge the results. Given that the responsibility to announce the final results falls on the shoulders of Vice President Mike Pence, avoiding any ambiguity in the process is essential.
Granted, this scenario is unlikely, but now is not the time to risk it. If this pandemic has taught the country anything, it’s that it’s important to guard against worst-case scenarios even when they seem highly unlikely. There can be no question, vaccinating Congress, and all of Congress is necessary. The whole body only requires 535 doses. The U.S. has already administered nearly 700,000 vaccines according to Bloomberg. Nearly 40% of the entire body is in a high-risk category for age anyway. The extra doses for low-risk members have no impact on the overall vaccine distribution chain in the country. Members forgoing it is nothing but incredibly high-stakes theatrics. Picking and choosing members presents too many practical and moral challenges, and not vaccinating the whole body presents too many risks with dire consequences.