Pelosi forms House committee to oversee coronavirus response
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday announced the creation of a special House committee charged with overseeing the unprecedented, multitrillion-dollar federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pelosi has tapped Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the Democratic whip, to lead the bipartisan panel, which will be authorized “to examine all aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus and ensure the taxpayer’s dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent.”
“The panel will root out waste, fraud and abuse; it will protect against price-gauging, profiteering and political favoritism,” she told reporters on a press call. “The fact is, we do need transparency and accountability.”
Lawmakers have passed three relief packages to address fallout from the virus, with President Trump signing a $2 trillion bill last week to send checks to many Americans, set up a $500 billion corporate liquidity fund and provide $377 billion in aid to small businesses, among other provisions.
The aid package was designed to prop up an economy in free-fall, as markets have nose-dived, businesses have shuttered and millions of people have been asked to remain in their homes across the country.
Adding to the urgency, the Labor Department announced Thursday that a record 6.6 million workers applied for unemployment benefits in the last week alone — by far the highest number in the nation’s history.
While Congress included certain parameters in its emergency response designed to target the funding to the businesses and families most immediately affected, the speed with which the package was assembled — combined with the sheer size of the federal outlays — has given rise to plenty of concerns about fraud and misuse.
Pelosi said Thursday that the commission, which will be granted subpoena power, is designed to mitigate any “mischief” as the funds go out the door.
“Where there’s money there’s also frequently mischief, and we want to just make sure that the funds that are expended, that are put out there, are done so with the conditions that we had in the legislation,” she said.
Separately, a pair of Democratic committee heads — Reps. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) and Adam Schiff (Calif.) — are pushing for the creation of an independent panel, modeled on the 9/11 Commission, to investigate the reasons the United States was so unprepared to cope with the coronavirus epidemic.
Pelosi said she supports such an after-action review, but emphasized that Clyburn’s commission has the more immediate task of monitoring the enormous allotments of federal relief to ensure it is going to the intended recipients.
“Is there need for an after-action review? Absolutely. And people are putting their proposals forward,” she said. “But I don’t want to wait for that, because we’re in the action right now.”
It’s unclear how many lawmakers will sit on the panel, or whether the idea will be embraced by Republicans, who are already accusing Democrats of launching politically motivated attacks against the president over the administration’s delayed response to the deadly virus.
Pelosi rejected those charges Thursday, saying the new select committee was designed not to examine any administrative missteps, but simply to “shine a bright light” on the use of taxpayer dollars.
“This is not a kind of an investigation into the administration. … We want to make sure there’s not exploiters out there,” she said. “I don’t think there would be any resistance to that.”
Pelosi’s comments came as House Democrats are pressing hard for a fourth round of emergency coronavirus relief, despite initial objections from Republicans who want to wait to gauge the effectiveness of the $2 trillion package, which was adopted just last Friday.
“Let’s make sure we are focusing on getting that bill to work for families before we talk about some grab bag of wish list items that Speaker Pelosi’s had for 10 years,” Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the Republican whip, told Fox Business on Wednesday.
The basis for the Democrats’ emerging Phase IV proposal is a sweeping, $760 billion infrastructure bill introduced by party leaders in January. That package would provide billions of dollars for highways, airports, water systems and high-speed rail lines around the country.
Specific to the coronavirus crisis, Democrats also intend to include $10 billion for community health centers, and billions more for broadband, particularly in rural and underserved regions that have struggled to meet the demand as much of the country is forced to shelter at home.
In addition, Democrats want to provide more help to states; strengthen worker-safety protections; ensure access to personal safety equipment for all medical workers; and provide free treatments — not just free testing — for all victims of the coronavirus.
“It is relief, but it is also a stimulus,” Pelosi said.
A wildcard in the debate is Trump, who is urging Congress to move a $2 trillion infrastructure package as the next, fourth phase of emergency relief.
Pelosi said she spoke Wednesday night with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has also been in conversation with Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) about what a fourth package might entail. But it’s pressure from officials in the struggling states, Pelosi predicted, that will lend the greatest fuel to the push for yet another round of emergency help.
“That’s probably the biggest leverage to get another bill,” she said.
Updated: 12:45 p.m.