For an agency long vulnerable to mission creep, it was only a matter of time.
A federal judge finally reined in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, striking down its sweeping eviction moratorium on the grounds that it exceeds the CDC's congressionally delegated authority.
In a 20-page memorandum opinion released Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich rejected the CDC's power grab. Tossing tenants out of their homes may increase the risk of coronavirus transmission, she wrote, but that doesn't place the United States' 11 million landlords under the public health agency's thumb.
"It is the role of the political branches, and not the courts, to assess the merits of policy measures designed to combat the spread of disease, even during a global pandemic," Friedrich wrote. "The question for the Court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not."
Millions of Americans fell behind on rent due to emergency restrictions that forced businesses to close or limit their services, resulting in layoffs and steep reductions to hourly employees' work schedules. At least 43 states and the District of Columbia temporarily halted evictions during the pandemic, the judge noted in his order.
Congress dipped its toes into the water when it passed the CARES Act in March 2020. The $2.2 trillion aid package included a 120-day eviction moratorium for public housing and federally subsidized rental properties.
When the four-month freeze expired, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of Health and Human Services and CDC to evaluate the necessity of additional measures to pause residential evictions. Under then-Director Robert Redfield, the CDC instituted a Sept. 4 moratorium applying to all rental properties in the United States.
Originally set to expire on Dec. 31, the CDC order was extended three times — once by Congress and twice by the agency itself. A coalition of plaintiffs including the Alabama Association of Realtors sued the DHHS and CDC in November, leading to last week's court decision.
Housing advocates are raising concerns that the coronavirus pandemic could spawn a homelessness epidemic, and the U.S. Department of Justice said it would appeal Friedrich's ruling.
If an eviction moratorium is sound public policy, Congress should do its job and enact one through actual legislation. A flawed process can sometimes produce a desirable outcome, but the ends don't justify the means.
Federal rules have the force of law, and people who fail to follow administrative diktats are often subject to criminal penalties. Property owners faced a year in jail and a fine of up to $250,000 for flouting the eviction moratorium.
While lawmakers too often and too eagerly delegate their authority to unelected bureaucrats, this isn't the first time the CDC has found itself under the microscope for trying to expand its influence.
Agency-funded research often strays from the hard sciences and takes on squishy subjects better left to sociologists than epidemiologists. A 1993 study linking gun ownership with increased homicide rates prompted the Dickey Amendment, which blocked the CDC from using federal money to advocate or promote gun control measures.
Dickey is now a dead letter, and The New York Times reported in March that a Texas pediatric surgeon is working under a $684,000 CDC grant to track gun-related injuries and deaths in Houston.
There's ample room for statistical research on gun violence in our ballooning federal budget, but an agency like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the FBI, which is already responsible for compiling national crime statistics, seems like a more suitable candidate to commission and supervise such projects.
The CDC is currently under fire for issuing school-reopening guidelines that incorporated the American Federation of Teachers' recommendations, including some language lifted verbatim from teachers' union lobbyists. White House press secretary Jen Psaki brushed off the concerns, explaining that it's common practice to consult with stakeholder groups.
Psaki is correct, but CDC critics have a point, too. The agency exists to provide specialized scientific guidance developed by doctors and medical researchers. Rubber-stamping industry trade groups' wish lists don't inspire confidence that the guidelines were developed with a high level of expertise.
Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.