On September 09, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14,042 (“the Order”). In the Order, President Biden required all executive agencies to include a clause in their contracts stating both contractors and subcontractors would “obey COVID-19 safety guidance issued by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.” On September 24, 2021, the Task Force issued its guidance, which required all contractors and covered employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.
With the World Health Organization rescinding its classification of COVID-19 as a global health emergency in May 2023, you may be wondering why we are discussing the Order. Well, this was not the first global pandemic, and it will not be the last. The first pandemics emerged once hunter-gatherer tribes settled in larger communities, as the formation of these communities, as well as increased agriculture and war, made it easier than ever for diseases to spread. The first recorded pandemic, the Athenian Plague, occurred in 430 BC Athens, and experts predict that there is a 47-57% probability that the world will experience another deadly pandemic before 2050.
Circuit courts around the country are split on whether Executive Order 14,042 was constitutional, with the most recent circuit, the Ninth Circuit, ruling that the Order could stand. In the Order, President Biden asserted power stemming from the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 (also known as the “Procurement Act”). The Act was originally signed into law to “increase the efficiency and economy of Federal government operations with regard to the procurement, utilization and disposal of property.” Since its codification, Presidents have used the Procurement Act to require contractors to use immigration status verification systems and to establish paid sick leave for federal contractors.
The Procurement Act notes that, “[t]he President may prescribe policies and directives that the President considers necessary to carry out this subtitle. The policies must be consistent with this subtitle.” Two Circuits have analyzed this language and created tests to determine whether Presidential orders are consistent with the Procurement Act’s requirements. The Fourth Circuit, in Liberty Mutual Insurance Company v. Friedman, introduced the reasonably-related test, which states that there must be a finding that the executive order’s policies are “reasonably related to the Procurement Act’s purpose.” The D.C. Circuit, in American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations v. Kahn, introduced the sufficiently close-nexus test, which states that the executive order issued must have a sufficiently close nexus to the Procurement Act and the statutory goals of economy and efficiency.
What we learn from the two tests is that the President’s order must relate back to the Procurement Act’s goals of economy and efficiency in contracting; however, when the next pandemic hits and the Supreme Court has to decide which test to apply when analyzing an Executive Order passed under power granted from the Procurement Act, which test should they choose (granted they do not create their own)? The Court should adopt the D.C. Circuit’s “sufficiently-close nexus” test; all though this test can sometimes be interpreted more leniently than the Fourth Circuit’s “reasonably-related” test, the “sufficiently-close nexus” test’s language and standards are more stringent. When handling health law policy, typically reserved for the states, and vaccinations that could impact millions of people, the Executive branch should be able to decide whether to issue an executive order; however, it should require a serious and sufficient justification.