Thom Tillis questions food workers' mandate to wash hands. Legitimate or gross?

The senator caused hand wringing among health experts by suggesting that requiring restaurant workers to wash their hands after going to the bathroom was government overreach. His remarks come amid a debate over the extent to which the government is responsible for promoting public health.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Sen. Thom Tillis (R) of North Carolina has caused hand wringing among health experts by suggesting that the government should not require food workers to wash their hands after going to the bathroom.

Nearly six years after the birth of the tea party, one of its new members in the US Senate has brought America to a debate that, trust us, it didn’t want to have: Should restaurant employees be required by the government to wash their hands after going to the bathroom?

Sen. Thom Tillis first questioned the ubiquitous wash-your-hands warnings at a Bipartisan Policy Center event on Monday, causing the moderator, Jason Grumet, to jokingly reply, “I’m not sure I’m going to shake your hand.”

Senator Tillis had a chance to laugh off his questionable Big Government parable, but instead buckled down when Associated Press reporter Charles Babington asked him about the comments. 

"Sometimes there are regulations that maybe we want to set a direction, but then let those who are regulated decide whether or not it makes sense," the senator explained. They might pay a huge price, he said, but "they get to make that decision versus government."

While off-putting, Tillis's hand-washing remarks are occurring amid a growing debate over the extent to which the US government is responsible for promoting public health. Those questions have renewed urgency amid a measles outbreak, given kitchen table conversations going on around the US over the role of government in mandating that kids be vaccinated before stepping through the schoolhouse door.

Two potential Republican presidential candidates – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul – have both defended the rights of parents to refuse to vaccinate their children, even though that act puts other children and adults at risk. Governor Christie's staff later clarified his remarks.

“While intended to score political points with the Tea Party base, Tillis’ point mirrors a troubling trend in the rhetoric around government regulation,” writes Sarah Bufkin, on Bustle. “By placing public health and sanitation concerns firmly within the purview of the market, anti-regulation politicians merely transfer the risk from the business onto the customer.”

Critics jumped fiercely and quickly on Tillis’s over-regulation analogy. “Freedom is contagious?” TPM Muckraker’s Josh Marshall tweeted.

Indeed, a lot of experts argue the US hardly needs fewer regulations around food safety. As it is, health experts say, America does a poor job protecting its food supply. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 48 million cases of food-borne illness in the country every year, 3,000 of which end in death. While 15 agencies regulate food safety, the US government is only now setting a limit on salmonella in grocery store chicken parts.

A broader critique, perhaps, would be that it’s not as if the “employees must wash hands before returning to work” signs are really an offensive regulatory sledgehammer wielded by uncaring Washington bureaucrats. (Hey, we all need a reminder sometimes, right?)

To be sure, Tillis’s remarks fit the same antiregulatory rhetoric familiar to North Carolinians, who elected Tillis to lead a conservative revolt in Raleigh that has had major impacts on the state. This included a decision to withdraw tax breaks from Hollywood, thus making folks in neighboring Georgia’s moviemaking industry smile. Tillis never made any bones about his small government tea party agenda as Assembly speaker before going on to bigger political victories in North Carolina. He beat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November for the Senate seat as part of a Republican wave seen across the US.

To be sure, Republicans have had success in painting proposed bans on super-sized-sodas as a nanny state run amok, but handwashing may not be the ideal battleground to make the stand, given the crickets in the background from the GOP camp.

The real problem with the analogy, writes Pedro Gonzalez on the conservative American Thinker blog, is that Tillis “simply has no idea how to articulate the idea of limited government.”

 “Liberals pretend that without a government rule on hand-washing, that we would all die of food poisoning,” Mr. Gonzalez writes. The real point is that, no matter what the food safety issue, “restaurants manage to mostly do the right thing because it’s in their own interest.”

The conversation came about from a specific encounter Tillis had at a Starbucks coffee shop, where he got into a debate with another patron over his regulatory worldview.

"As a matter of fact I think this is one where I think I can illustrate the point,” he recalled telling a woman. “I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says we don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom. The market will take care of that. It’s one example.”

In the end, it’s probably good that America’s top leaders have the health of both business and the public in mind. Let’s just hope they all remember to wash their hands before pressing the flesh at election time.

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