WASHINGTON - The intensity of the coronavirus pandemic has forced the U.S. Congress to focus its attention on legislation that immediately addresses funding public health needs and aiding struggling American workers and businesses.
But many U.S. lawmakers are already crafting legislative action that will examine the lessons learned from federal and state readiness for the pandemic as well as fulfilling Congress’ constitutionally mandated oversight role for the $2 trillion CARES Act, the largest relief package in American history.
The U.S. Congress is not due to come back into session until May 4. When lawmakers do make a full return to Capitol Hill, here are some of the measures that will be under consideration.
President Donald Trump falsely told reporters Monday that he has the power to lift coronavirus closures in the United States, instead of the decisions being made by the heads of state and local governments.
“When somebody's the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that's the way it's got to be,” he said.
Trump’s comments reignited Democrats’ concerns he does not respect Constitutional checks and balances. Earlier this month, he criticized the formation of a House Select Committee overseeing the CARES Act and any future legislation relating to coronavirus relief funding.
“I want to remind everyone here in our nation’s capital, especially in Congress, that this is not the time for politics, endless partisan investigations,” Trump said.
But congressional Democrats have emphasized the committee is not a political effort to undermine Trump.
“This is not about the president of the United States,” the chair of the new committee, Rep. James Clyburn told cable network CNN Sunday. “This is about focusing on how the money is spent and whether or not the people who are getting the money are actually working on behalf of the American people.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the formation of the select committee on April 2, saying it would “ensure that taxpayer dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent to save lives, deliver relief and benefit our economy.”
Trump removed acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine five days later, on April 7. That action prevented Fine from serving as the head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee overseeing the $2.2 trillion in taxpayer money in the CARES Act, a role specifically created to address Democrats’ concerns the funding could be used as a so-called corporate “slush fund.”
They said Trump’s replacement appointment of Brian Miller, a White House aide involved in defending the president during impeachment proceedings, would not insure adequate transparency.
“One of the reasons the inspector general's office was set up was for its independence. And so I think somebody who comes from the president's counsel's office doesn't seem to meet that bill,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters in a conference call last week.
The congressional oversight committee still requires a vote in the U.S. House to become official.
Lawmakers are also considering a number of proposals that would set up a broad review of the U.S. response to the coronavirus. Three Democrat-introduced proposals are very similar in design and are modeled on the 9/11 Commission, a ten-person panel that conducted an almost two-year investigation into the 2001 terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.
The coronavirus commission would examine U.S. preparedness for a pandemic and the decision-making process in federal and state governments in response to the crisis.
“This is not an exercise in casting blame or scoring political points, but something that the American people should rightly expect from their government as an exercise in accountability,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said in an April 3 statement, introducing his legislation.
Similar to Schiff’s proposal, a bi-partisan measure from Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy and Republican Rep. John Katko would have even numbers of members from both parties and would have the authority to use court orders to compel witnesses to testify and produce documents.
If either piece of legislation is passed, the commission would not be set up until after the November 2020 presidential election.
Republican Rep. Rodney Davis has introduced a similar proposal of his own, while House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson has called for a much larger commission that would start almost immediately after the passage of his plan.
Any discussion of U.S. preparedness for a pandemic will almost certainly touch on the nation’s reliance on Chinese supply chains. The U.S. imports nearly 35% of its antibiotics and 30% of its personal protective equipment from China, according to a March 2020 Congressional Research Service report.
An effort to find solutions has been launched by Republican Senator Marco Rubio and co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine.
“We must take steps to address the systemic vulnerability and supply chain risk that the coronavirus pandemic revealed. It is unfortunate that it took a global pandemic to make clear the ramifications of offshoring our industrial base to countries like China,” Rubio said, introducing a bill that would require the U.S. Department of Defense to determine if the nation’s dependence on foreign pharmaceuticals is a national security issue.
Congressional Republicans have placed the blame for the rapid spread of the coronavirus on China, pushing for a number of additional measures that would hold China accountable for its lack of transparency in informing the global community about the scope and nature of the coronavirus.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson told Politico Monday the Senate Oversight Committee would launch a broad investigation into U.S. preparedness for the coronavirus as well as the role China and the World Health Organization played in the crisis.