From mishandling classified emails to shutting down bridges for political payback, elected officials embroiled in scandal sometimes see their political careers suffer as a result. But after the Biden administration’s latest move, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo might just get away with one of the biggest political scandals of this century.
Here’s the background.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, we quickly learned that the elderly were most at risk of dying from the virus. However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an order mandating that nursing homes accept patients who had tested positive for COVID-19. He did so even though this meant endangering the entire community and even though there were viable alternatives to this policy.
Tragically yet unsurprisingly, we then saw thousands of New York nursing home residents die from COVID-19. “It’s like a slaughterhouse at these places,” said one nurse who lost her mother after a COVID-positive patient was forcibly admitted to her nursing home community.
In light of these horrifying results, Governor Cuomo eventually reversed his order after several months—without admitting any fault, of course.
Yes, mistakes happen, even grave ones. We ought to have some grace for politicians placed in extremely difficult circumstances by a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. But for Governor Cuomo, the scandal was only just beginning.
Seeking to save face, his administration reportedly fudged the numbers. It did so by excluding from the official figure for nursing home deaths any nursing home resident who was infected by COVID-19 but then died after leaving the home and being admitted to the hospital. A Cuomo aide later admitted that they were intentionally trying to cover the data up due to fear of scrutiny.
And an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James, herself a Democrat, found that the real tally of nursing home victims was roughly 50 percent higher than initially reported. The report estimated that approximately 13,000 nursing home residents in New York had lost their lives to COVID-19. It also concluded that the governor’s mandate “may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities.”
What was Cuomo doing during all of this? (Besides trying to cover it up.) Enjoying widespread media fanfare and pocketing at least $5 million to write a book about how amazing his leadership during the pandemic was. Yes, seriously.
Despite this frankly egregious series of events, the Department of Justice announced Saturday that it will not pursue a civil investigation of the state of New York’s handling of nursing home pandemic policy.
Now, as the conservative lawyer Andrew McCarthy pointed out for National Review, the DOJ’s decision doesn’t let Cuomo completely off the hook. While unlikely, there could still be a federal criminal investigation and charges, and the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York is still investigating. That said, McCarthy writes that “My own intuition is that pigs will fly before the Biden administration takes any action against the Cuomo administration — and, indeed, that the chance of a civil suit was marginally better than that of any criminal indictment.”
In short, it looks like Cuomo may end up getting away with it. While this is indeed frustrating, it shouldn’t actually come as a surprise. As economist Peter Jacobsen noted for FEE.org, “[Cuomo’s] scandals aren’t a case of one bad apple, but reveal inherent flaws in our political system.”
Why? It comes down to the differences between free-market capitalism versus big government. The conversation is often framed as a dispute between allowing businesses to pursue their self-interest unfettered versus having government actors, be they politicians or bureaucrats, step in and advance the peoples’ collective interest. However, this argument makes a key assumption—that the same self-interested nature found in businessmen, consumers, and workers, miraculously does not exist in our politicians.
In reality, economics teaches us that politicians and government actors are also motivated by self-interest, not the “common good.” (Whatever that is). And as Jacobsen explains, knowledge gaps limit the extent to which elected officials are actually held accountable by voters.
So, yes, it is maddening to see powerful figures like Andrew Cuomo abuse their power, attempt to cover it up, and then just about get away with it. But this is a feature of big government, not a bug. The only way to reduce the number of politicians abusing their power is to reduce the size and scope of the government itself.
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