WASHINGTON (CN) — Whether their creation will be more guard than lap dog will reveal itself in time, but the House got the ball rolling Thursday when it voted 212–182 to formally establish an investigative body tasked with overseeing the U.S. government’s pandemic response.
Only Representative Justin Amash, a now Independent former Republican, voted against the resolution.
The creation of the committee began last month under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina selected as chairman. The vote on Thursday makes it official since congressional rules required a full vote to launch and imbue the committee with authority to subpoena testimony, records and more.
Modeled after the 1941 committee championed by Senator-turned-President Harry Truman to wrangle the waste and corruption hamstringing the nation’s response to World War II, now 79 years later, lawmakers hope the select subcommittee to address the coronavirus pandemic will do something similar as the nation confronts an uncertain future.
With Clyburn at the helm, the committee of seven Democrats and five Republicans is authorized to review spending of the $500 billion earmarked for businesses, states and cities from the greater $2 trillion coronavirus relief package.
“What started weeks ago half a world away is having a devastating impact on our communities,” Representative Jim McGovern said on the House floor, speaking into a microphone with little interference by a facemask stylized with the logo of the Massachusetts Democrat’s New England Patriots.
As of Thursday, more than 840,000 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in America with approximately 45,000 dead. The U.S. economy, strained under the weight of social-distancing measures and work restrictions rolled out from coast to coast, saw more than 20 million initial unemployment claims filed in March.
“Families will be changed forever. We are in a crisis. Now over $2 trillion we have approved to help our constituents and protect them and small businesses but that’s only part of our job. We need to do the oversight… and make sure every single penny we have appropriated goes to where it needs to go,” McGovern said. “I don’t want to be here a year from now looking back and saying, ‘Oh, look at all the waste and abuse, look at the well-connected people who benefited and look at all the people who needed the funds and didn’t get them.’”
Issues around delays to testing, the barren national stockpile of personal protective equipment and lifesaving ventilators, and questions swirling around lucrative contracts awarded to federal entities for the development of virus-treatment protocols are just a few of the reasons Congress must have its new watchdog in place, Democrats argued Thursday.
Later when speaking to a reporter from CNN just outside the House floor, incoming subcommittee Chairman Jim Clyburn declined to address whether the committee would look into more current curiosities like a recent retaliation claim raised by Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
By and large, Republicans predict that the select committee will become a superfluous congressional channel Democrats will use to besmirch President Donald Trump and his administration.
“They are doing this because they hate the president,” said Representative Jody Hice of Georgia, who hurled some of the bluntest criticism of the day before the vote.
The notion was dismissed as factional rancor by the speaker, whose appearances on the Hill this week have included a series of stylish scarves pillowing around her neckline.
“It wasn’t considered partisan then, nor should this be considered partisan,” Pelosi said.
The Truman Committee was formed in early 1941 in the Senate but was the brainchild of Eugene Cox, then a conservative democrat for Georgia in the U.S. House.
Cox, a segregationist, was vehemently opposed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and called for the formation of a committee to examine military spending. A bit of politicking between Roosevelt and then South Carolina Democratic Senator James Byrne resulted in Cox’s committee eventually being plucked from the House and plopped into the friendlier Senate.
Marc Gallicchio, who chairs the history department at Villanova University, recalled in an interview with Courthouse News how Roosevelt wasn’t happy about the committee at the time but tolerated it.
“Because Truman made it clear that he would not be a grandstander,” Gallichio said Thursday. “Interestingly, Truman had a healthy skepticism of the military and its desire to control the economy. He also expected big business would fleece taxpayers if given the chance.”
Eight decades later and in a much different political atmosphere, Gallicchio said he doubted the new committee would be as effective Truman’s.
“The president abhors transparency and Republicans have not exhibited any interest in opposing him on that,” said Gallicchio, who noted as well that Truman’s time was one featuring a healthy number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. “Working across the aisle was more of a possibility. That helped the committee operate.”
Gallicchio’s sentiment was reflected in a moment of exasperation from the floor Thursday.
“I’m stunned, stunned by the resistance to sunshine and transparency,” McGovern.
After World War I, there were more than 100 congressional committees or subcommittees to investigate related spending. The cost for Truman’s committee to conduct its business was about $1 million over three years, and it prevented an estimated $15 billion in waste, fraud and abuse, according to the Senate archives. That is equivalent to $750 billion today.
“What made sense then makes even more sense now,” Pelosi said.