Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky testifies on Capitol Hill in May. CDC director is not a Senate-confirmed position.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky testifies on Capitol Hill in May. CDC director is not a Senate-confirmed position. Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP

Republican Senators Look to Make CDC Director a Senate-Confirmed Position

The job has been subject to much attention and scrutiny over the past almost two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Republican senators introduced a bill on Tuesday that would require the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be a Senate-confirmed position in order to increase accountability at the agency.

Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., introduced the Restoring Trust in Public Health Act, which Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Dan Sullivan, R-Ark., and Mike Braun, R-Ind., cosponsored. The position of CDC director has been subject to much attention and scrutiny over the past almost two years due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has never been subject to Senate confirmation throughout its 75-year history. 

The CDC director “surprisingly” does not require Senate confirmation, despite the agency being one of the “major” components of the Health and Human Services Department, said a fact sheet accompanying the bill. The agency “employs over 10,000 individuals and has requested $9.57 billion of discretionary budget authority and an additional $5.8 billion of mandatory funding from Congress for fiscal year 2022, and yet Congress has no say in who leads the center,” the lawmakers said.  

The bill is largely a response to alleged “politically motivated decision-making” at the agency and overreach of authority––such as its role in establishing the eviction moratorium–– during the coronavirus pandemic, said the fact sheet. 

“The CDC has exerted astonishing power over the everyday lives of millions of Americans without any say from Congress,” Lee said in a press release. “This bill will ensure that, through the confirmation process, future directors are qualified, honest and reasonable. Few agencies need such tempered, rational leadership as much as the CDC.”

Under the leadership of director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC came under fire in the spring for how it communicated and handled guidance for vaccinated individuals, including its reversal on mask guidance. 

“Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first came out with its misguided policy to lift masking requirements in May, I have been calling on it to reverse course,” wrote Leana Wen, visiting professor at The George Washington University’s Milken School of Public Health, in The Washington Post on July 29. “On Tuesday, it did, but the new guidance remains just as confusing and the communication just as muddled.”

Recently, the White House and Food and Drug Administration have been clashing with the CDC over coronavirus booster shots, arguing the agency is “withholding critical data needed to develop the booster plan,” Politico reported on Monday. However, “Walensky has fiercely defended the CDC throughout the last several weeks telling White House officials who have pledged for months to follow the science that the late September booster target was likely too ambitious.” 

Under the Trump administration, there were vast allegations of politicization at the agency, which led to a sharp decline in public trust. 

Stat News reported in September 2020 how current and former CDC insiders said that then-director Dr. Robert Redfield was “not doing enough to safeguard the reputation of the CDC and the integrity of its work, and that he [was] failing to successfully fend off political interference that is eroding Americans’ trust in the organization.”

In written responses to Stat News, Redfield “sidestepped all of STAT’s questions — about political influence on guidance documents, revisions of [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report] articles, and his own pledge to safeguard the agency’s reputation,” said the report. “Instead, he said he believes the CDC ‘remains the world’s premiere public health agency.’” 

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