Time for Republicans to get serious about COVID-19 oversight
President Trump is continuing a pattern of shocking behavior concerning independent oversight of administration actions, most recently regarding the massive COVID-19 relief legislation. It’s time for Republicans to join Democrats in Congress and get serious about such oversight, even – and perhaps especially — when Trump disagrees.
On April 7, after a council of inspectors general had named Acting Defense Department IG Glenn Fine to head a group of IGs charged with monitoring the COVID-19 relief effort, Trump abruptly removed Fine from his post. Trump then directed the new EPA inspector general to assume Fine’s duties “in addition to his other responsibilities,” which are considerable. The current IG at the Department of Justice, where Glenn Fine worked for 11 years, called Fine “uniquely qualified” for the important role. Trump’s sudden removal of Fine and reversal of the decision of nine other respected IGs is extremely troubling.
But that was not Trump’s first disturbing recent action on COVID-19 and other oversight. When he signed the $2 trillion relief bill in March, Trump claimed that he can countermand the legislation’s requirement that the COVID-19 inspector general report promptly and directly to Congress if agencies refuse to hand over needed information. Days later, he nominated one of his own White House lawyers, who had worked on his impeachment defense, to serve as the special COVID-19 inspector general called for in the bill. In the interim he sacked another watchdog, the intelligence community inspector general who had informed Congress of the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine – actions that ultimately led to his impeachment.
Democrats quickly lambasted Trump’s moves to hijack oversight of COVID-19 relief, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) saying the nomination was like putting a “fox in charge of the henhouse.” But with few exceptions, congressional Republicans were silent. That must change.
As I know from my own experience in oversight, both parties must act vigorously for it to be effective. More than ten years ago, both Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee joined in pursuing questionable FBI behavior related to surveillance of Americans, despite some opposition by the Bush administration. Current Republicans have been aggressive along with Democrats in oversight relating to an inspector general report on FBI surveillance through the FISA court. But that was with President Trump’s approval and encouragement, since he thought it helped further his attack on FBI agents who he claimed went after him during the 2016 campaign.
Republicans must show similar vigor in pursuing oversight when President Trump does not want it, particularly concerning COVID-19.
On the House side, Republicans should work with Democrats on the bipartisan COVID-19 panel set up by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which will have a “broader purview” than some of the mechanisms set up in the bill and help “ensure those dollars are spent carefully and effectively.” They should stop claiming that the panel is simply an attempt at “harassing the president,” as one House leader claimed.
Both Houses should demand an explanation for the IG firings by Trump. After the firing of the intelligence community inspector general, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) issued a statement praising inspectors general and whistleblowers and calling for “written reasons” and “[m]ore details” concerning such firings. The Democratic and Republican leaders of both House and the Senate should press for that.
Meanwhile, a crucial test for the Senate will come when it considers Trump’s nominee to be the special COVID-19 inspector general, White House lawyer Brian Miller. Will he obey the bipartisan law passed by Congress mandating that he let Congress know promptly if agencies refuse to provide him with information, or will he instead go along with Trump’s claim that this part of the law should be ignored? What steps will he take to ensure his independence from the White House? These and other questions must be strongly pursued by senators.
People are dying every day from the deadly virus, and Americans desperately need the funds that Congress appropriated for relief. We cannot afford any waste, fraud or abuse. As then-Sen. Harry Truman said in calling for oversight of government defense spending in the lead-up to World War II, we need “every safeguard possible” to prevent the “sacred funds” from “being misused and mishandled.” Republicans must join with Democrats and insist on transparent and effective oversight of COVID-19 relief spending. Otherwise, our government’s response to COVID-19 may produce many more lost lives and billions of wasted dollars. Americans will remember in November and should vote against Republican members of Congress who fail to take effective action in this crucial area.
Elliot Mincberg, Senior Fellow of People For the American Way. Mincberg is former chief counsel for oversight and investigations of the House Judiciary Committee.
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