Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress?

During President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE's impeachment trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Republican governor of Arkansas says 'Trump is dividing our party' MORE (R-Ky.) asked Chief Justice John Roberts if he could make a brief announcement.

“In the morning, there will be a coronavirus briefing for all members at 10:30,” McConnell stated on Jan. 23, noting the Senate Health panel was taking the lead on it.

McConnell’s remarks represented the first time that the novel coronavirus was mentioned in the Congressional Record this year. At the time, there was one confirmed case in the United States.

In the next four-and-half months, more than 110,000 people in the United States would lose their lives to the virus, and the economy would be closed down — shutting businesses and forcing millions into unemployment. The pandemic, not impeachment, is certain to be the fundamental issue to voters as they go to the polls this fall.

This historic crisis has led to intense scrutiny of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic focused on the executive branch’s sluggish realization of how severely the global pandemic would hit the country.

The response of Congress, in contrast, has received much less attention or criticism.

The GOP-controlled Senate and Democratic-led House had less power and resources to respond to the crisis than the executive branch. Yet Congress does have tremendous influence to oversee the response, and to push the president and his Cabinet to do more to protect American lives and the economy.

Legislators also are elected to solve problems and identify dark clouds on the horizon before the storm hits — a deep failure when it comes to the novel coronavirus.

The Hill has examined hundreds of statements and hours of congressional testimony to highlight which legislators were the first to raise red flags that the coronavirus presented an imminent danger to the United States.

The results show a number of lawmakers were asking the right questions early on in the crisis, and that members called attention to shortages of masks and other protective gear that would become a national outrage. The public record also shows that even when lawmakers were asking the right questions, they did not always get the right answers as the federal government, the media and the larger health community struggled to understand COVID-19.

Congress was ill-prepared to handle the pandemic, despite international and domestic scares with Ebola and SARS, and passage of pandemic legislation less than a year before the coronavirus hit the country. Turbocharged partisanship in the Trump era that has made it difficult for Congress to operate also contributed to a tardy response to the coronavirus, even as lawmakers in both parties underestimated the crisis.

First House hearings preview debates to come

The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation announced in late January it would hold a Feb. 5 hearing on “The Wuhan Coronavirus: Assessing the Outbreak, the Response, and Regional Implications.”

The title of the hearing was an early sign of the division over what to call the mysterious virus that most experts believe originated in China.

The name of the virus became a political football. Trump frequently labeled it the “China virus” in an attempt to point to its origins and blame Beijing for not doing more to stop it.

Democrats and other critics argued it was racist to label it the China virus, and Trump cut back on using the term after warnings that Asian Americans were coming under attack.

But it was a Democratic-controlled panel that labeled it the “Wuhan virus” at the initial hearing, held as the disease had already spread to 24 countries.

Rep. Ami BeraAmerish (Ami) Babulal BeraHouse GOP campaign arm adds to target list Biological ticking time bombs: Lessons from COVID-19 Former GOP lawmaker jumps into California recall election MORE (D-Calif.), a physician who chairs the subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, expressed regret later.

“In retrospect, we should have called it the novel coronavirus,” he told The Hill.

The first House hearing more importantly foreshadowed the partisan finger-pointing that would break out as the coronavirus news got worse and the initial lack of attention given to a crisis that would dramatically change American life just weeks later.

Bera invited the Trump administration to testify, but no one showed up. The panel instead heard testimony from three nongovernmental health experts.

The sparsely attended hearing included pleas for bipartisanship amid some testy moments about Trump's travel ban on China, which had been announced a week earlier.

“Let's get ahead of this ... We're on the same team,” Bera said at the hearing.

Bera would ultimately chair three hearings in February and early March on the virus. In a recent interview with The Hill, Bera said he realized there was a public health threat to the U.S. “because it's not normal to shut down a city the size of Wuhan," which has more than 11 million people.

Chinese officials shut down the city of Wuhan on Jan. 23. It was the first city where the coronavirus emerged.

Fog of war

A fog of uncertainty surrounded Congress’s understanding of COVID-19, contributing to the uneven response by the federal government.

Lawmakers early on asked pertinent questions, but they didn’t always get accurate answers. And some of their questions underscored how little was understood about the “invisible enemy.”

At the first House subpanel hearing, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) asked the panel of experts if it would be useful to quarantine people.

“I’m struggling to understand based on my limited understanding of biology — I’m a mere engineer — why quarantining is not appropriate?” she asked. “Why is it something not useful in this case?”

Houlahan was told quarantining people is only used in rare cases, isn't feasible and probably wouldn't work to combat the coronavirus.

Months later, scientists know that the disease can be spread by asymptomatic people who do not show symptoms and do not know they have COVID-19.

Much of the nation eventually locked down by mid-March, which wrecked the economy but saved thousands of lives. Yet, a Columbia University study estimated that 36,000 lives could have been saved if the lockdown had started just a week earlier.

If even limited lockdowns had started in February, after Houlahan asked her question, it’s possible the disease’s spread could have been limited further.

Houlahan told The Hill recently that the coronavirus “confounded the experts” while noting the country hadn't dealt with something like it in a century. But she was struck that the congressional testimony on quarantining contradicted what she had learned about other diseases. 

Early alarms

Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Opposition to refugees echoes one of America's most shameful moments White House defends CDC outreach to teachers union MORE (R-Ark.) raised very early alarms about the coronavirus. He wrote letters to health agencies, talked with Trump, tweeted and publicly spoke out about the danger of COVID-19.

At a Senate Armed Services panel hearing on Jan. 30, Cotton labeled the virus “the most important story in the world. This coronavirus is a catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl for China, but actually, it's probably worse than Chernobyl, which was localized in its effect. The coronavirus could result in a global pandemic.”

The conservative National Review magazine highlighted the concerns raised by Cotton, who is considered to be a possible presidential candidate in 2024.

Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeVictims' relatives hold Capitol Hill meetings to push police reform Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations MORE (D-Texas), Cotton’s ideologic opposite, in February delivered several speeches on the House floor, highlighting dangers of the virus and criticizing the administration's response to it.

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap On The Money: Democratic scramble complicates Biden's human infrastructure plan | Progressives push on student debt relief No designated survivor chosen for Biden's joint address to Congress MORE (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee who is the dean of the upper chamber, delivered a Feb. 12 speech on the Senate floor that called for funding hikes, highlighting the 2020 outbreaks of Ebola and the coronavirus. Leahy didn't forecast how bad the coronavirus would become, but he recognized the potential scope of spreading diseases.

“Today, we are struggling to control outbreaks of Ebola and the novel coronavirus,” Leahy said, “and while we don’t know which viruses will next attack us, we do know it is not a matter of if, but when ... Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives could be lost, and the amount of funding necessary to control it would be incalculable.”

Later on, lawmakers were pinpointing problems early that would become national outrages.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse to consider anti-Asian hate crimes bill, protections for pregnant workers this month A historic moment to truly honor mothers Britney Spears to discuss conservatorship in court MORE (D-N.Y.) on March 12 urged the administration to take precautions to protect people who are incarcerated two weeks before the first prisoner died. There are more than 40,000 cases of the coronavirus reported among prisoners, according to a joint tracking project by the Marshall Project and The Associated Press.

During panel hearings in late February and early March, various members including Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP Top female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' Romney: Removing Cheney from House leadership will cost GOP election votes MORE (R-Utah), Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyRepublicans' 'marriage bonus' is social engineering at its worst Cruz outspending other senators on Facebook ads: report Press: Let us now praise Liz Cheney MORE (R-Mo.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanOvernight Health Care: Biden announces 1M have enrolled in special ObamaCare sign-up period | Rand Paul clashes with Fauci over coronavirus origins | Biden vows to get 'more aggressive' on lifestyle benefits of vaccines Biden health official says COVID-19 vaccine booster shots will be free Sununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate MORE (D-N.H.) and Reps. Bonnie Watson ColemanBonnie Watson ColemanBiden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Senate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote Progressives won't oppose bill over limits on stimulus checks MORE (D-N.J.), Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettBattle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers Biden backs COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states MORE (D-Texas) and David CicillineDavid CicillineDemocrats reintroduce legislation to ban 'ghost guns' Republicans float support for antitrust reform after Trump Facebook ban upheld Washington keeps close eye as Apple antitrust fight goes to court MORE (D-R.I.) homed in on the country's lack of masks and other medical equipment for health care workers.

Romney said at a March 3 Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing that he was “most concerned” after being told the U.S. would need 3.5 billion masks, but only had 35 million in the national stockpile.

Weeks later, the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage became front-page news as doctors and nurses were forced to improvise, wearing scarves and bandanas and reusing medical equipment. 

A pandemic bill

In June 2019, less than a year before the coronavirus would shut down the country, Congress passed a reauthorization bill on pandemics. It was a wonky piece of legislation that attracted scant attention in the media and was quietly signed into law by the president.

Yet, it was hailed by both parties as increasing the nation's preparedness for chemical or biological attacks, natural disasters and infectious diseases. But the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act (PAHPA) did little to stave off the coronavirus.

As the coronavirus news got worse, there was frustration among some members that they had already enacted a recent law to control such a disease.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senator urges Biden to withdraw support for COVID vaccine patent waiver Utah county GOP censures Romney over Trump impeachment vote Battle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers MORE (R-N.C.), a co-author of PAHPA who sits on the HELP panel, pressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March on the implementation of the 2019 law — specifically on the allocation of the money that Congress approved. Burr would later step aside as chairman of the Intelligence Committee amid an investigation of his pre-pandemic stock sales.

Weeks before it became clear to much of the public just how far behind the U.S. was on tests, lawmakers were raising the alarm.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) said at the March 3 hearing, “It's inadequate, to say the least.”

Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBiden's pre-K plan is a bipartisan opportunity to serve the nation's children Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on HELP whose home state was the first one hit, grilled Trump administration officials on testing and was skeptical of their early promises, which weren't met.

In late February, Murray pointedly asked Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “Is our country ready?”

Bera told The Hill that policymakers had a false sense of complacency, partially because of early positive data coming from South Korea's handling of the outbreak. South Korea had the capacity to carry out many more tests than the U.S. and also had learned lessons from prior SARS and MERS outbreaks.

But Bera said this sense of complacency also came because lawmakers had a lot of trust in the CDC based on its track record.

The agency’s reputation has taken a major hit from the coronavirus. The CDC initially designed a flawed test for COVID-19, one of many missteps the administration made on testing.  

“This is the CDC,” Bera told The Hill. “It never occurred to me that it wouldn't be the best test in the world.” 

Budget battles underscore how Congress underestimated threat

In late January, House Democratic appropriators pushed the White House to seek an emergency supplemental measure dedicated to the coronavirus. The administration proposed $2.5 billion, which was immediately attacked as too meager.

After some squabbling, Trump on March 6 signed an $8.3 billion supplemental as more than 200 people in the U.S. in 18 states had tested positive.

The $8.3 billion figure is a stunningly small amount in the wake of recent COVID-19 legislation. Since then, a total of nearly $3 trillion has been enacted — with House Democrats pushing for another $3 trillion in relief.

Congress was far from the only institution or figure that can be accused of underestimating the crisis.

In January, the World Health Organization stated it “doesn’t recommend limiting trade and movement” and publicly praised China for its “transparency” and handling of the virus.  

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Biden announces 1M have enrolled in special ObamaCare sign-up period | Rand Paul clashes with Fauci over coronavirus origins | Biden vows to get 'more aggressive' on lifestyle benefits of vaccines Average US daily COVID-19 cases below 40K for first time since September Rand Paul clashes with Fauci over coronavirus origins MORE, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and one of the administration's most trusted voices, said in late January that the American public shouldn’t worry about the coronavirus outbreak in China.

“It’s a very, very low risk to the United States,” Fauci said, while adding, public health officials need to take the virus “very seriously.”

Many lawmakers understandably sought to soothe the public, including Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderThe Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality MORE (R-Tenn.).

At the March 3 HELP hearing, Alexander read from a front-page New York Times story stating, “With its top-notch scientists, modern hospitals and sprawling public health infrastructure, most experts agree, the United States is among the countries best prepared to prevent or manage such an epidemic.”

While the article also raised the possibility that the U.S. could experience shortages in ventilators and personal protective equipment, Alexander stressed the need to get accurate information for the public. Fewer than 100 cases had been confirmed in the U.S. at the time.

Earlier, Democrats and the administration sparred over the Trump administration's proposal to cut the budgets of public health agencies. The White House knew Congress wasn't going to pass the cuts, which attracted criticism from some Republicans as well.

Rep. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooNIH readies grants for more research on long-term health effects of COVID-19 Lawmakers launch bipartisan caucus on SALT deduction Biden clean electricity standard faces high hurdles MORE (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health, pressed Azar in February about whether the administration should revise its budget plan for health agencies, citing the coronavirus and various proposed cuts.

“Nothing to reconsider?” Eshoo asked.

“I don't believe there is,” Azar responded.

Battered by bad headlines, the Trump administration three weeks later upped its budget requests for CDC and NIAID by $1.3 billion and $440 million, respectively, which put them near current funding levels. 

Partisan battles

The coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. during a historically divisive political moment that has contributed to a faulty response by the government.

Trump mentioned the coronavirus in his Feb. 4 State of the Union address, which began with him refusing to shake Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Job openings jump to record high of 8.1 million | Wyden opposes gas tax hike | Airlines feel fuel crunch Pelosi: House Democrats want to make child tax credit expansion permanent Pelosi announces change to House floor mask rules MORE’s (D-Calif.) hand and ended with her ripping up a copy of his speech.

The address was given a day before the Senate voted to acquit Trump on impeachment charges.

Trump touched on the virus briefly in a paragraph sandwiched between opioid abuse and AIDS. And he sounded a positive note toward China, something that would dramatically change in subsequent weeks.

“Protecting Americans’ health also means fighting infectious diseases,” he said. “We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China. My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.”

From early to mid-February, the Trump administration was regularly briefing Congress on the spread of the virus. But it refused early requests to appear publicly in the House and Senate. The administration did not appear at the first House hearing on Feb. 5 and also declined to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee a week later.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonRand Paul clashes with Fauci over coronavirus origins Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as White House continues to push vaccination effort Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna MORE (R-Wis.), an ally of the president who chairs the Senate panel, said he was "disappointed" the administration didn't send any representatives.

A former Trump administration official, Scott Gottlieb, told Johnson's committee that the coronavirus was “deeply concerning.” Gottlieb, who headed the Food and Drug Administration, said, “I think what we should be worried about isn't the cases we know about. It's the cases that we don't know about. And there are certainly cases we don't know about.”

There were 13 confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases at that point.

Democratic leaders, including Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Biden to host Sinema for meeting on infrastructure proposal MORE (D-N.Y.), have lambasted Trump's handling of the virus.

Trump and other Republicans have noted that Pelosi visited San Francisco’s Chinatown in late February, encouraging people to go there to eat and shop. Fact-checkers have noted Trump’s subsequent comments about that press event significantly exaggerated what she said.

Pelosi in May said Trump should not be taking hydroxychloroquine for the coronavirus given that he is "morbidly obese," a personal insult out of character for the Speaker. Trump has called her “crazy Nancy” and accused her of drinking on the job.

Lawmakers and Trump were able to come together to pass massive bills to help the economy in March, though they are now at loggerheads on a new relief bill even as millions more Americans file for unemployment.

It has all highlighted how the broad bipartisanship after national crises — such as 9/11 — are likely a thing of the past. Sweeping reforms to the law, including ObamaCare and the Trump tax cuts, are rammed through on a partisan basis. Oversight of the executive branch by the opposing party is now marked by defying subpoenas and drawn-out battles in the courts. 

No heroes

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who has served as a Senate fellow, said there were no powerful heroes on Capitol Hill who saw what was coming. He also pointed out both parties were preoccupied with impeachment in the beginning of the year as the virus spread around the globe.

While noting that the executive branch is most responsible for combating a pandemic, Baker said the White House has been usurping power from Congress since the 19th century. That dynamic, he said, has basically left the legislative branch watching from the sidelines.

By and large, the initial reaction from the Democratic-led House and the Republican-controlled Senate was similar. The narrative on Capitol Hill was the virus would likely affect the U.S., but the country's health care system was the best in the world and the experts were on top of it.

Many comparisons were made to the flu as legislators noted the flu kills tens of thousands of people in America per year. Others said the coronavirus was primarily a threat to the sick and the elderly.

After Trump administration officials gave the Senate a classified briefing on the coronavirus on Feb. 25, Democrats and Republicans both questioned the need for the information to be labeled secret.

Yet the reaction of the parties was overall quite different. Republican senators generally expressed optimism to the press on the federal response, noting that outside of a cruise ship, U.S. cases had held steady at 14 for roughly a week. Democrats, such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), raised significant concerns.

Blumenthal, a frequent critic of Trump, said an outbreak in the U.S. was “virtually inevitable.” He added there would be an outcry if the American people “heard what we were told.”

While many Republicans were downplaying the threat, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyOn The Money: Biden says workers can't turn down job and get benefits | Treasury launches state and local aid | Businesses jump into vax push Grassley criticizes Biden's proposal to provide IRS with B The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Infrastructure, Cheney ouster on deck as Congress returns MORE (R-Iowa) took a different tack: “While the coronavirus is not yet a pandemic, there are signs that it could develop into a worldwide threat. Based on public reports, I’m concerned that China may not be accurately reflecting the scale or scope of the problem or sharing information with global health organizations.”

The stock market plummeted that day with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping 880 points in a spiral that would continue for weeks.

Even though U.S. policymakers were late to comprehend the severity of COVID-19, Baker said they did come together to pass massive bills on relief packages relatively quickly.

Going forward, Baker is optimistic that the White House and Congress will strike one more deal on another major stimulus measure.

After that, Baker said, “We'll be deep in the presidential election season.”