It is not uncommon for legislators to introduce bills that they know won't pass but that have symbolic value of some sort, like renaming a bridge or freeway to honor a constituent. Every so often, however, they propose something that they intend to become law that is so completely ill-conceived and anti-social that it becomes the very personification of politicians' irresponsibility and incompetence. Two examples come to mind, one at the end of the 19th Century, the other just last month.
In 1897, the lower house of Indiana's legislature, the General Assembly, voted to declare 3.2 the legal value of pi, a constant that defines what a circle is -- the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is the same for every circle: 3.141592... followed by a string of trillions more digits. A college classmate of mine could recite the first thousand digits, a kind of parlor trick that he performed occasionally to raise money for charity. (Don't ask – it's kind of an M.I.T. thing.)
A loony amateur mathematician managed to convince Indiana State Representative Taylor I. Record to introduce a bill in the state's General Assembly of 1897 to make Goodwin's pi value a matter of state law. It passed unanimously.
Before the bill could receive the imprimatur of Indiana's Senate, however, by chance it came to the attention of Purdue University math professor Clarence A. Waldo, who happened to be in the capital to request funding for the Indiana Academy of Sciences. He gave the senators a brief geometry lesson about the basis of pi, but the bill still nearly passed. In the end, the senators decided to postpone the vote indefinitely, which killed the bill and saved Indiana from the inconvenience of never again being able to legally build a bridge, building, or highway. (To say nothing of the state's students not being able to get their geometry homework right.)
The second example is legislation introduced last month that would make it a criminal misdemeanor to administer a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine in Idaho. State Senator Tammy Nichols and State Representative Judy Boyle, both Republicans, cosponsored Idaho House Bill (HB) 154 which states simply: "A person may not provide or administer a vaccine developed using messenger ribonucleic acid [mRNA] technology for use in an individual or any other mammal in this state. A person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor." (A second version of the bill introduced by Sen. Nichols on March 10 would criminalize the administration of mRNA vaccines only to humans.)
There are several ironies in this proposed legislation that argue strongly against its passage.
First, it comes at a time when we need to continue to try to control the pandemic, which has abated somewhat but certainly has not ended. The most widely used COVID vaccines have been made with mRNA technology, as will likely be the case for future boosters or newly formulated vaccines.
Second, Idaho has fared poorly in controlling the pandemic, with more than half a million reported COVID cases (which is surely a significant underestimate) and over 5,400 deaths, and in vaccinating its population. It has the sixth lowest COVID vaccination rates among the U.S. states and territories, with only 56% of the population "fully vaccinated," defined as having had the first two doses of the mRNA vaccines; booster rates are far lower.
Third, data presented at the meeting of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices during the week of February 20th found that the benefits of the mRNA COVID vaccines, billions of doses of which have been administered worldwide, far outweigh the risks. In addition to the documentation from the CDC and FDA, the New England Journal of Medicine has a Covid-19 Vaccine Resource Center that offers a variety of articles documenting the safety and importance of vaccination. The latter would enlighten Senator Nichols and Representative Boyle, assuming that they are at all interested in learning about the targets of their calamitous, ill-considered legislation.
HB 154 did not single out the current COVID vaccines specifically but would also apply to future mRNA vaccines – all of which would have had to go through the onerous government evaluation and approval process before reaching a single Idahoan.
In summary, HB 154 deserves the same fate as Indiana's 19th Century pi bill – banishment to the Terrible Legislation Hall of Fame. And at the next election, Idahoans should think carefully about the suitability of ignoramuses like Nichols and Boyle to hold public office.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger distinguished fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.