Tribune Editorial: Making political games of a pandemic

Video monitors are shown in a nearly empty room, during the Utah Legislature's virtual special session from the House chambers at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Salt Lake City. In a historical, first-ever virtual special session, the Utah House voted to pass several bills seeking to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“The question ‘Who ought to be boss?’ is like asking ‘Who ought to be the tenor in the quartet?’ Obviously, the man who can sing tenor.”

Henry Ford

One of the nation’s most accomplished business leaders has been deliberately, and churlishly, excluded from the president’s council of advisors who will chart a course out of the pandemic-related recession.

Members of the Utah Legislature are looking to horn in on the governor’s lawful and necessary authority to declare, manage and end states of emergency, as well as the proper power of local governments to declare emergency rules as need be. And to push aside medical science to promote the use of potentially useful, and potentially deadly, medications that have not been tested or approved for use in treating COVID-19.

And to exclude the public from the deliberations of the advisory body they are creating.

While the Utah official named to lead the state’s coronavirus already has both a day job — running the state’s election office — while running for governor himself.

There is a difference between proper political leadership in a time of crisis and taking advantage of a time of crisis to promote a political agenda.

There is wisdom in the saying credited to Rahm Emanuel, former member of Congress, White House chief of staff and mayor of Chicago: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Difficult times can focus the mind and sweep aside petty differences in the service of doing something for the greater good.

But today we are seeing far too many examples, in Washington and in Utah, of the kind of political gamesmanship that should be the first thing tossed aside in a time of crisis.

Ever since he stopped pretending that COVID-19 was a “hoax,” something that would be swept away like the seasonal flu, the president of the United States has turned every public statement and every executive decision into a tool to promote himself and some pretty flaky ideas. He undercuts the influence of the nation’s top infection disease experts. He promotes the use of a medicine that, while proven useful for malaria, is also known to cause fatal heart abnormalities. He stops the printing of relief checks so his name can be imprinted on them.

Looking to find a way to restart the national economy without inviting a second — or third — wave of infection and death, the president has assembled a large group of supposed best brains. But he has purposely excluded Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney, someone whose combination of success in business, government and public service is unmatched, and focused on reversals of fortune, from the process.

Clearly, this is because Romney has, on occasion, called out the president on some of his more atrocious behavior. And was the only Republican senator to — quite properly — vote to convict the president on one of the counts of impeachment.

Closer to home, leaders of the Legislature have oddly elected not to avoid involvement in a process that, even if run by the smartest of experts with the best of intentions, might end in disaster. Instead, they called themselves in to special session to promote legislation that would require the governor to give lawmakers 48 hours notice before making an emergency declaration. A proposal that ignores the very definition of the word “emergency.” It would also make it more difficult for local officials to take the same step.

The whole point of the special session seems to be to move the decision-making power away from those who know what they are doing and toward those who can’t resist the urge to meddle.

It is good to see that, as the situation has gotten worse, Gov. Gary Herbert himself has become the point person for public information and action. Giving Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox that job, even as he was running for governor himself, was not a good idea. Especially when Herbert is not only the official who should be the face of the effort, but also one who, having long ago declared he was not running again, was most above the political fray.

Both Congress and the legislatures of the several states should be vigorously exercising their oversight functions as this crisis eases. How we got here, and how we can do better next time, are questions that must be asked and answered.

But, while the house is on fire, it is the experts, not the politicians, who should be making the decisions.