Democrats Make Picks for Watchdog Group on Virus Response

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, pictured between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at this 2019 gathering, was tapped Wednesday to lead the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Democrats announced their appointments Wednesday to a select committee that will watch for government waste and fraud as the nation confronts its worst public health challenge in a century. 

The Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis was approved last week in a contentious House vote. Though Democrats have lauded the body’s formation as a necessary and commonsense check on the federal response, Republicans have been largely dismissive, expecting the result will be little more than another partisan foil on President Donald Trump.

Speaking to a small group of reporters gathered inside the Capitol building Wednesday, Pelosi reiterated, “The purpose of this committee is to make sure we have a bright light shining on the implementation of two trillion taxpayer dollars.” 

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who stood alongside Pelosi Wednesday, will chair the select committee made up of six fellow Democrats and five Republicans.

Besides Clyburn, the Democratic members appointed by Pelosi are California Representative Maxine Waters; Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Nydia Velazquez of New York; Representative Bill Foster of Illinois; Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland; and Representative Andy Kim of New Jersey. 

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California has yet to announce the minority’s appointments.

A spokesperson for the lawmaker told Courthouse News the committee is merely Speaker Pelosi’s pursuit of “Impeachment 2.0.”

“Currently, the House has a standalone Oversight Committee … the roster the speaker has chosen makes clear that this is not an honest effort at transparency and accountability but rather another attempt to politically damage the Trump administration,” the spokesperson said. 

But Pelosi said each member is well suited for the role. Waters, Maloney and Velazquez already chair existing powerful congressional committees like House Financial Services, House Oversight and House Small Business, respectively.

Foster is a former physicist and small business owner who also chairs a congressional subcommittee on science and technology, while Representative Raskin brings experience as an attorney and professor of constitutional law, Pelosi noted.

Representative Kim, a freshman member of Congress and Rhodes scholar, comes to the committee with a diverse background spanning diplomacy and national security. Kim was an Iraq expert for the State Department before spending about six months advising former U.S. General David Petraeus and later General John Allen in Afghanistan. Kim also served on former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council until 2015. 

First speaking through a protective mask before later removing it, Representative Clyburn said the members chosen by Democrats will ensure that $2 trillion from taxpayers will be dispersed efficiently, effectively and equitably to mitigate the effects of the crisis. 

The body will operate much like the 1941 Truman Committee, with lawmakers regularly meeting to review and investigate potential fraud and abuse issues stemming from a national crisis. The Truman committee was budgeted $1 million over three years to root out waste from World War II. According to the Senate archives, it saved taxpayers an estimated $15 billion, which would be about $750 billion by today’s standards.

“We will not just model this after that committee but hopefully we will meet with similar successes. I feel we will,” Clyburn said. “In this moment of crisis, the American people expect Congress to lead. We have no higher priority than the health of the American people. As they go about the business of struggling to maintain good health, pay the rent or mortgage… and keep food on the table, we will do our part to make sure they are treated with dignity and respect.”

With a $2 million budget in place, the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis will scrutinize issues like price gouging and profiteering. Beyond tracking dollars and cents, it will also keep a sharp eye on federal efforts related to testing, containment, mitigation and surveillance. 

Functioning under the House Oversight Committee’s jurisdiction, notably, the committee’s authority does not expire on a certain date. Rather it only ceases to exist 30 days after the committee’s final report is issued, meaning, its powers to subpoena and investigate so long as the pandemic rages could potentially outlast Trump’s presidency.

The economic impact on small businesses and health care providers are also a focus, as are the disparate effects that tend to befall protected classes like minorities, the disabled or and members of LGBT groups.

How the federal government handles the acquisition and distribution of medical supplies or life-saving personal protective equipment is a keen concern for the body.

Testing in the United States has dragged since the pandemic outset thanks to the contamination of test kits at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention facility in Atlanta. The Food and Drug Administration confirmed earlier this month that lab standards there were violated, and widespread reporting from anonymous officials suggest it took over a month for the CDC to correct its errors at the Georgia facility.

Pelosi swatted down criticism Wednesday that the committee is a bureaucratic redundancy, as Republicans have repeatedly suggested. That “reasoning,” she said, ignores reality.

For one, she noted, Republicans had no qualms when it came to establishing a select committee to investigate Planned Parenthood.

“Again, 1 million people had not been diagnosed [with a virus] and 50 to 60,000 people had not died. But they thought it was urgent. Despite all of the other oversight committees,” said Pelosi, who next pointed to the 2014 formation of the Republican-led House Select Committee on Benghazi.

That committee has been long criticized by as more partisan boondoggle than productive oversight.

“How long and how much money did they spend on that?” Pelosi said Wednesday.

At a cost of $7.8 million, Congress spent 28 months investigating the attacks on the embassy in Libya that killed four Americans. By comparison, Congress investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed over 2,500 people, for a 19 months.

Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy for the independent government watchdog Project on Government Oversight said the coronavirus committee’s formation was commendable but offered a caveat.

“Congress also needs to focus on filling out the Congressional Oversight Commission established in the CARES Act which still lacks a chair,” she said. “I hope congressional leaders act soon to fill that slot and get the commission up and running. It’s been over a month since the pandemic hit the U.S., and oversight over the federal response has gotten off to a woefully slow start.”

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