Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress?

During President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE's impeachment trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill McGrath campaign staffers to join union Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention 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 BeraDemocrats fear US already lost COVID-19 battle Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight 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 CottonHillicon Valley: Pompeo floats TikTok ban | Civil rights groups slam Facebook after call | Election security funding included in proposal Pompeo: US 'certainly looking at' ban on Chinese social media apps like TikTok Overnight Defense: DOD reportedly eyeing Confederate flag ban | House military spending bill blocks wall funding 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 LeeLocal reparations initiatives can lead to national policy remedying racial injustice House to vote on removing bust of Supreme Court justice who wrote Dred Scott ruling Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism 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 panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse Overnight Defense: Navy won't reinstate fired captain | Dems probe use of federal officers in DC | Air Force appoints woman as top noncommissioned officer Dems request watchdog probe use of federal law enforcement in DC during Floyd protests 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 NadlerNadler wins Democratic primary Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Clyburn threatens to end in-person coronavirus committee hearings if Republicans won't wear masks 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 RomneyRomney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Trump administration narrows suspects in Russia bounties leak investigation: report Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide MORE (R-Utah), Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyOvernight Defense: House Dems offer M for Army to rename bases | Bill takes aim at money for Trump's border wall | Suspect in custody after shooting at Marine training facility  Should the United States withdraw from the WTO? Defense spending bill includes M for Army to change Confederate base names MORE (R-Mo.) and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanSenators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Hillicon Valley: Livestreaming service Twitch suspends Trump account | Reddit updates hate speech policy, bans subreddits including The_Donald | India bans TikTok Senators move to boost state and local cybersecurity as part of annual defense bill MORE (D-N.H.) and Reps. Bonnie Watson ColemanBonnie Watson ColemanNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman wins Democratic primary The Hill's Campaign Report: Primary Day in New Jersey MORE (D-N.J.), Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettGilead sets price for five-day coronavirus treatment at ,120 The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Mark Takano says Congress must extend worker benefits expiring in July; WHO reports record spike in global cases Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? MORE (D-Texas) and David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineOVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' Hillicon Valley: Apple's developer dispute draws lawmaker scrutiny of App Store | GOP senator blocks bill to expand mail-in and early voting | Twitter flags Trump tweet on protesters for including 'threat of harm' 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 BurrBiden campaign adds staff in three battleground states Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? Trump asserts his power over Republicans 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 MurrayGOP Health Committee chair says he disagrees with Trump's WHO decision Lobbying battle brewing over access to COVID-19 vaccine Trump officials seek to reassure public about safety of a potential coronavirus vaccine 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 FauciTrump breaks with Fauci: US in 'good place' in fight against virus Health care group launches M ad campaign hitting Trump in battleground states Overnight Health Care: Trump says White House will pressure governors to open schools | Administration formally moves to withdraw US from WHO | Fauci warns against 'false complacency' on COVID-19 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 AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderTrump WHO withdrawal could boomerang on US Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention GOP Health Committee chair says he disagrees with Trump's WHO decision 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 EshooDemocrats fear US already lost COVID-19 battle Why drug costs for older Americans should be capped in pandemic's wake Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse 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 PelosiClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Trump's WHO decision raises bipartisan concerns in House Five takeaways from PPP loan data 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 JohnsonRomney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Grassley won't attend GOP convention amid coronavirus uptick Trump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP 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 SchumerTrump may be DACA participants' best hope, but will Democrats play ball? Pompeo: US 'certainly looking at' ban on Chinese social media apps like TikTok Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide 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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Trump says GOP 'flexible' on convention plans Overnight Defense: House Dems offer M for Army to rename bases | Bill takes aim at money for Trump's border wall | Suspect in custody after shooting at Marine training facility  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.”