Democrats frustrated in coronavirus oversight efforts

Greg Nash

House Democrats are growing frustrated in their efforts to oversee the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, as President Trump said Tuesday that he’s blocking officials from testifying in the lower chamber because he doesn’t want them taking questions from “a bunch of Trump haters.” 

Trump’s blunt reasoning for refusing to cooperate with congressional oversight handled by members of the opposition party marked a shift from the explanation offered by the White House a day earlier, that officials tasked with coronavirus response were too busy to accommodate every request to testify before congressional committees.

A House Appropriations subcommittee had sought testimony from Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, about the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus response. But the White House blocked Fauci from testifying at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, instead saying that he will testify next week before the GOP-controlled Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Trump made clear on Tuesday that his administration is deliberately choosing which committees can hear from top officials based on which party is in charge. Senate Democrats will still be able to ask pointed questions at committee hearings, but the proceedings will be managed by Republicans.

“The House is a set up. The House is a bunch of Trump haters,” Trump told reporters outside the White House.

“But Dr. Fauci will be testifying in front of the Senate, and he looks forward to doing that,” Trump added. “But the House, I will tell you, the House, they should be ashamed of themselves. And, frankly, the Democrats should be ashamed, because they don’t want us to succeed. They want us to fail so they can win an election.” 

Trump’s refusal to let Fauci take questions before one chamber of Congress is only the latest example of his defiance of Democrats’ oversight efforts since they took over the House last year.

The White House prevented several key witnesses from testifying during House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his political opponents, arguing they weren’t obligated to cooperate with a “partisan” and “illegitimate” investigation. 

The move ultimately led to an article of impeachment accusing Trump of obstruction of Congress.

Trump has also targeted inspectors general in recent weeks. Last month, Trump dismissed the intelligence community inspector general who had alerted Congress last year to the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment inquiry.  

And on Friday, the White House announced Trump’s intention to replace the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general who had released a report that found hospitals lacked adequate protective equipment and testing to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Democratic leaders openly expressed exasperation on Tuesday at Trump’s open acknowledgment that he won’t submit to oversight led by Democrats. 

“It’s not worth getting into,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters, although a day earlier she told CNN that the White House “might be afraid of the truth.” 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sighed in frustration when asked at a Tuesday news conference in the Capitol about Trump’s comments.

“This president, he’s got a lot of problems. One of his biggest is he runs away from truth. And oversight is truth. Oversight shows what’s going on,” Schumer said.

“We need oversight. That’s part of the congressional responsibility,” Schumer added.

The White House issued a memo on Monday instructing members of the coronavirus task force not to accept invitations to participate in congressional hearings this month, unless approved by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, to prioritize focusing on the federal response. 

The guidance stated that “no more than one [coronavirus]-related hearing should be agreed to with the department’s primary House and Senate authorizing committee and appropriations subcommittee for the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security and the State Department” with a cap of four coronavirus-related hearings department-wide through the end of the month.

“Given these competing demands in these unprecedented times, it is reasonable to expect that agencies will have to decline invitations to hearings to remain focused on implementing of COVID-19 response, including declining to participate in multiple hearings on the same or overlapping topics,” the memo stated.

In addition to Fauci, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will also hear on May 12 from other top officials: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Brett Giroir, who is overseeing coronavirus testing efforts. 

The House Appropriations subcommittee still plans to hold a hearing on Wednesday, but none of the witnesses will be current administration officials leading the federal government’s response to the crisis.

The panel will instead hear from Thomas Frieden, who served as director of the CDC during the Obama administration, and Caitlin Rivers, an expert from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. 

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who chairs a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, said Tuesday that she plans to hold a hearing next week on the whistleblower complaint filed by Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who alleged that he was demoted after declining to promote the use of drugs touted by Trump to treat COVID-19 patients because they lacked scientific merit.

Eshoo said she hoped to secure testimony from Bright as well as Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec.

“It’s very damaging,” Pelosi said of Bright’s complaint during an interview Tuesday evening with MSNBC’s “The Beat with Ari Melber.”

House Democrats’ oversight efforts have also been hampered by the chamber being out of session for most of the previous two months due to the health risks posed by lawmakers and staff congregating together on Capitol Hill.

The 13-member House Appropriations subcommittee will hold its hearing on Wednesday with additional safety measures in place like physical distancing and wearing masks.

Republicans have been resistant to allowing committees to conduct all of their business virtually and called for the House to reconvene with enhanced physical distancing measures.  

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also has yet to name any Republicans to the new select committee created by Democrats to conduct oversight of the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus response. McCarthy has derided the new panel as “impeachment 2.0” and redundant given the other oversight bodies established by the coronavirus relief law in March. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) reiterated Tuesday that Democrats intend to press on with rule changes to allow virtual committee work, even if a bipartisan task force formulating ways for the chamber to reopen long-term doesn’t reach an agreement between the two parties.

“I think there’s little doubt that the Republicans are not interested in oversight,” Hoyer told reporters.

But if push comes to shove, Hoyer added, “We don’t intend to have the Congress put on the sidelines. We don’t intend for oversight to be nonexistent. We don’t intend for the Congress to be unable to do its work. So from that standpoint, we hope we can get bipartisan agreement to accomplish those objectives. But if we can’t, we’re going to accomplish those objectives.”

Tags Anna Eshoo Anthony Fauci Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Congressional oversight Coronavirus Donald Trump Kevin McCarthy Mark Meadows Nancy Pelosi oversight Steny Hoyer White House coronavirus task force

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