Congress slow to oversee US response to crisis amid partisan battles
(CNN) -- Congress moved so quickly this spring to approve a staggering amount of money to respond to the coronavirus crisis that most members barely had a chance to read the bills before they voted to send them to President Donald Trump's desk.
And now efforts to oversee how the federal government is spending nearly $3 trillion of taxpayer money are sputtering along.
A new oversight panel established by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has yet to get off the ground as Republican leaders weigh boycotting the panel amid accusations it is designed to hurt Trump. A five-member commission to oversee $500 billion for big companies has only done preliminary work in part because congressional leaders have not yet agreed on a chair to lead the group, even though the law was enacted more than a month ago.
And the White House said coronavirus task force members are so consumed by responding to the crisis that they would not be available to testify before Congress this month unless explicitly approved by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Trump added that he wouldn't even send the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to testify before the House this week because the chamber is "full of Trump haters."
With control of the White House and Congress on the line in a high-stakes election fewer than six months away, distrust is running high -- especially since the outcome is likely to be determined by how voters view Trump's leadership amid the unprecedented economic and public health crisis.
"There is a time and a place for oversight," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and member of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership team. "I don't believe now is the time to begin that sort of finger pointing and posturing."
Democratic leaders in the House are still planning to forge ahead -- and pointedly accuse Trump of seeking to avoid any sort of accountability, scrutiny or to comply with Congress, even with American lives on the line. They say it's part of a pattern with Trump, who has been at war with House Democrats since they took control of the chamber last year and impeached him at least in part over charges he obstructed Congress' ability to investigate his actions.
"This President has done everything in his power to undermine the Congress' constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight of the executive branch," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told CNN on Tuesday. "This President has no sense of his responsibility to the Constitution, to the people of this country and to the Congress' authority to conduct oversight."
"So we're going to pursue oversight," he said, adding that many hearings will soon be conducted "virtually" with House members back in their home districts.
Both sides are still anticipating some high-profile hearings in the upcoming days -- and the latest relief package enacted late last month requires the Trump administration to submit reports to Congress, including about its testing strategy for Covid-19.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who chairs a key House health subcommittee, plans to hold a May 14 hearing with Rick Bright, the ousted head of a key office who filed a whistleblower complaint alleging his warnings about the coronavirus were ignored and that he was reprimanded because he voiced skepticism about a potential treatment touted by Trump.
Later this week, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins will testify about new tests for COVID-19 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, while Fauci and other top health officials will testify next week before the same GOP-led panel next Tuesday about safely reopening the country.
GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the committee, said Tuesday that the country is better served when hearing from the nation's experts about the public health crisis.
"You know I think the administration does best when they let the experts do the briefings," Alexander said after being asked by a reporter about the President leading daily briefings about the US response.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will convene a hearing on Wednesday about how the pandemic has threatened the airline industry. When asked if he thinks airlines need additional bailout dollars, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the panel's GOP chairman, told CNN: "That's why we are doing oversight."
Sen. Mike Crapo, the Senate Banking Committee chairman, said he wants to bring in Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to testify. "I'd like to do it as soon as we can," the Idaho Republican said.
But with the House mostly out of session for five weeks and counting and still yet to agree on how to conduct hearings virtually, and the Senate only just returning this week, congressional oversight has taken a backseat as the pandemic continues to ravage the country.
Plus, oversight requests are not being complied with, Democrats say. Indeed, the State Department did not produce records requested by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel about Trump's decision to halt funding for the World Health Organization, and Engel, a New York Democrat, is now considering issuing a subpoena, an aide said. But that fight could take months to play out.
Late last month, the House approved the creation of a 12-member select subcommittee with sweeping power to probe the US response to the crisis. The panel, chaired by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, has seven Democratic members -- but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has not yet appointed Republicans to it and will decide by the end of the week on whether he will, according to a congressional aide familiar with his thinking. He has sharply criticized the panel as a partisan attempt to undermine the President.
Pelosi has defended the panel and insisted it would focus on how taxpayer money is now being spent to root out fraud and abuse, indicating the House would wait to conduct an "after-action" review about Trump's initial response to the crisis.
On Tuesday, Pelosi told CNN that "of course" the Democrats would proceed with the probe on the committee regardless if McCarthy names Republicans to serve on the panel. "I hope they will" name members, she said of Republicans.
Asked about Trump's attack that the House is full of "Trump haters," Pelosi added the attack is "not worth" responding to.
Democratic members of the panel have already spoken about potential targets for their investigation. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who serves on the committee, told CNN that his fellow Democrats have three goals: "oversight over trillions of dollars in federal money," a probe into the "effectiveness of our fight against the disease and efforts to reopen the country safely" and the "disproportionate impact of the disease" on some communities.
"It used to be a point of bipartisan consensus that Congress needs to conduct oversight over executive branch activities," Raskin added. "Unfortunately, our GOP colleagues have now been pulled into President Trump's determination not to accept any oversight at all."
As the Democrats await the GOP decision, another body is awaiting its leader.
McConnell and Pelosi have not yet agreed to a chair for a new five-member commission to oversee the $500 billion fund to help stabilize distressed companies, a fund established by the stimulus that was approved in March.
The House speaker said Tuesday she was "waiting to hear back" from McConnell and the two have been "going back and forth" -- but that they hoped to make a decision "soon."
Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who was selected by McConnell to serve on the five-member commission, said the work of the group has only been "very preliminary" so far.
Asked if they would be able to put together an initial report this month as required, he would only say: "We'll see."
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