The House of Representatives on Feb. 8 passed a bill that would end a vaccine mandate on foreign travelers entering the United States.
H.R. 185, introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), is a brief bill.
“A BILL [to] terminate the requirement imposed by the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for proof of COVID–19 vaccination for foreign travelers,” the top of the legislation reads.
The legislation would forbid federal agencies from using any congressionally apportioned funds to enforce such a vaccination mandate.
In addition to overruling the CDC’s April 2022 order, the bill would prohibit the imposition of any similar vaccination requirement for foreign travelers entering the United States in the future.
The bill passed in a 227-201 vote.
“Life has returned to normal across the country,” Rep. Nick Langworthy (R-N.Y.) said in support of the bill. “Despite the rest of the world moving on from COVID, this administration persists in maintaining an unnecessary vaccination requirement for those entering the United States.”
The day before, the bill had easily glided through the House Rules Committee in a 9-3 vote. All nine committee Republicans voted to advance the bill. The committee’s Democrats, excluding an absent member, voted against the bill.
In an Oct. 25, 2021, proclamation, President Joe Biden announced a ban on entry to the United States for foreigners not vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, a ban which the administration said was a “science-based public health measure.”
Biden called specifically for a ban on unvaccinated “covered individuals”—non-citizens seeking to enter the country temporarily—being allowed entry by air travel.
In April 2022, the CDC announced the “Amended Order Implementing Presidential Proclamation on Advancing the Safe Resumption of Global Travel During the COVID–19 Pandemic,” which put Biden’s rule into effect.
Less Strict for Illegal Aliens
The CDC’s April 2022 order is stricter on those temporarily entering the United States for travel than on illegal aliens.
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), in comments during the Rules Committee hearing, noted that COVID restrictions on foreigners legally entering the United States for travel are harsher than those imposed on illegal aliens.
Namely, Burgess relayed a conversation he had had during a visit to the border with Customs and Border Patrol agents.
He said the agents told him that unvaccinated illegal aliens are allowed into the country under the “catch and release” policy. This policy describes a procedure whereby illegal aliens apprehended at the border are released into the country to await their day in court. Statistics, however, show that many who cross the southern border illegally never show up for this date.
Burgess described vaccination as “purely voluntary” for illegal aliens entering the country.
Republicans endorsed Massie’s bill, noting that it would put the United States in line with other developed nations’ policies toward unvaccinated travelers.
In fact, Massie noted during a heated exchange with Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) that not only do developed, free countries have no such policy—even otherwise-authoritarian states like Russia, China, and Iran impose no such requirement.
White House Replies
The White House issued a statement condemning the bill (pdf).
In it, Biden tried to walk back his September 2022 comments about the pandemic being “over,” using far less strong language in the statement when describing COVID.
“While COVID-19 is no longer the disruptive threat that it once was, the Administration opposes Congressional action to reverse the vaccination requirement for noncitizen nonimmigrants entering the United States by air,” the White House said. “This policy has allowed loved ones across the globe to reunite while reducing the spread of COVID-19 and the burdens it places on the health care system in the United States.”
Biden also argued that the ability “to place restrictions on the entry of noncitizens to the United States” is within the executive’s power.
“[Prior] Administrations have done so for decades in a number of contexts,” the White House wrote.
The statement added, “This Proclamation rescinded the country-by-country restrictions that had previously applied during the COVID-19 pandemic and replaced those restrictions with a global air travel policy that relied primarily on vaccination to ensure that international air travel to the United States could resume safely.”
Additionally, Biden emphasized that the proclamation had been made in line with CDC guidelines.
“The President issued this Proclamation based on advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the statement read.
The White House concluded: “As we approach the end of the public health emergency, the Administration will review all relevant policies, including this one. Just as the establishment of this public health policy was guided by science, any termination or modification of this policy should be as well. A vote for this bill undercuts that critical principle.”
Democrats Denounce Vaccine Criticism as ‘Conspiracy Theories’
Democrats on the committee urged trust in “public health experts,” arguing that any other approach would limit options for responding to future variants of COVID-19.
Democrats argued that experts, rather than Congress, should ultimately have authority over the travel restrictions imposed on foreigners.
Massie’s bill would “tie [the] hands” of “public health experts,” Pallone said during testimony to the committee.
He called on Congress to “trust the public health experts,” saying they “know best how to keep Americans healthy and safe.”
Later in the hearing, Pallone said that criticism of the COVID-19 vaccine “disturbs me a great deal.” He added, “500 people [are dying from COVID] every day!”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during the Rules Committee hearing spoke at length about the prevalence of “conspiracy theories” about the COVID-19 vaccine and submitted to the record a New York Times article “debunking” these.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) struck the same tone when she referred to herself as a “strong supporter of public health expertise.”
Like others in their party, McGovern and Scanlon called for the decision to be left to the CDC.
In response to criticisms that the bill would limit the CDC’s ability to respond to future variants, Massie noted that the vaccines were already ineffective against past variants, including the delta and omicron variants.
“‘Variants of concern’ are called ‘variants of concern’ because the vaccine doesn’t work against them,” Massie quipped.
Contested Claims About COVID Vaccine
Democrats hinged their opposition to the bill on many contested claims about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
Still, despite claims that there is a scientific consensus in favor of the safety and efficiency of COVID vaccines, concerns linger.
For instance, available research shows the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID vaccines have been reported to cause increased incidents of myocarditis and pericarditis, particularly in young men—who are otherwise not usually at risk for the relatively rare cardiac conditions.
Also undercutting claims that the vaccine is safe, the CDC recently posted a “safety signal” posted to its website warning that people over 60 who took two COVID-19 booster shots may be at increased risk of stroke.
The effectiveness of the vaccines is also disputed.
While initially touted as providing up to 100 percent protection from spreading or catching COVID-19, it quickly became obvious that this was a false claim.
Various reports indicate that even people who are fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 are still at risk of catching, spreading, being hospitalized for, and dying from the disease—particularly in regard to new variants.
As early as May 2021, studies began to show that the effectiveness of the drug in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 had dropped to 33 percent.
One study said that “data indicate that vaccinated individuals infected with Delta variants are capable of shedding infectious SARS-CoV-2 and could play a role in spreading COVID-19.”
Later the same year, data from Qatar—which has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world—showed that while the vaccine was initially as much as 80 percent effective, six months later, that effectiveness dropped to only 20 percent.
Researchers wrote, “[the vaccine’s] effectiveness against any SARS-CoV-2 infection was negligible in the first 2 weeks after the first dose. It increased to 36.8 percent … in the third week after the first dose and reached its peak at 77.5 percent … in the first month after the second dose.
However, they found that “[Its effectiveness] declined gradually thereafter, with the decline accelerating after the fourth month to reach approximately 20 percent in months 5 through 7 after the second dose.”
Other Republican COVID Bills
H.R. 185 is only the latest in a series of GOP bills addressing COVID.
On Jan. 31, the House passed two COVID measures.
The first bill officially declares an end to the public health emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second bill would end the vaccine mandate for health care workers at institutions that receive federal funding.
Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) proposed ending the emergency declaration, putting pressure on the Biden administration to rescind the measure. After Republicans announced their intention to consider the bill, Biden announced that he would end the public health emergency, but said he would wait until May to do so.
In a speech on the House floor calling for the passage of his bill, Guthrie said, “President Biden and I agree: the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”
While federal employees were targeted most by Biden’s mandates, private institutions, hospitals, and clinics that received federal funding were also subject to the mandates. In this case, the mandates came not from the president but from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
The CMS mandate, which doesn’t allow a testing opt-out, covers more than 17 million health care workers.
Guthrie, appearing to testify to the Rules Committee, cited these two bills, and said that H.R. 185 would build on them.
“Last week we had a couple bills dealing with COVID,” Guthrie said. “H.R. 185 provides another opportunity to move our country back to normal.”
“It is long past due to end this mandate.”
The bill will now head to the Senate, where it is likely to face a greater challenge than it did in the House.
Democrats are likely to oppose the measure. Like all bills in the upper chamber, it will need the support of at least 60 senators, meaning at least 11 Democrats and all 49 Republicans.
If the bill were to pass Congress, it would still need Joe Biden’s signature—a signature which his statement indicates he will not give.