Coronavirus, the House and oversight

Coronavirus, the House and oversight
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President Donald Trump is on the brink of a catastrophic failure. If his administration doesn’t start leveling with the American people and get the nation fully prepared for the onset of the coronavirus, his mismanagement could rival the governmental bungling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Even as the coronavirus threatens to become an epidemic on our shores, the Trump administration has proposed cutting resources for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (our country’s key federal agency responsible for studying and protecting the nation from the threat of disease). Following the virus’s rapid spread — with the World Health Organization raising its risk assessment to “very high” — Trump and his team have also botched the early stages of defending the country against the disease over the months since it has been known to the planet.

Meanwhile, the financial markets by which Trump measures the value of his tenure in office have had their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis. That includes more than five percent of value lost in the two days after a dog-and-pony show of a press conference that featured the president being contradicted — just minutes after he spoke — by the medical professionals who followed him at the podium. While the president tried to convince the country that everything is fine, the experts warned about the imminence of a pandemic here in the U.S. At the same time, Trump couldn’t make clear who exactly is in charge of the nation’s coronavirus preparation, allowing a power struggle between Vice President Pence and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar.

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Since then, we learned that Dr. Anthony Fauci — perhaps the nation’s foremost expert on the public policy management of infectious diseases, who also spoke at Trump’s press conference about the dangers of the virus — was directed to not speak any further about the government’s response without “clearance” by the administration. If that wasn’t enough, newspapers then broke the story of a whistleblower at HHS who revealed that teams of researchers were “improperly deployed” to help recent American returnees from Wuhan, China, as well as the Diamond Princess cruise ship — both “hot zones” for the coronavirus — who were quarantined at California military bases.

According to the whistleblower, those teams came into contact with the returnees without using safety equipment, were allowed to visit other parts of the military bases, and some then flew commercial airlines back home. One of the military bases where returnees were met by these HHS teams is Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, Calif. This week, the nation learned of the first patient in the U.S. who contracted the virus without first traveling to an affected country — a patient in Solano County, Calif. At the same time, while nations such as South Korea have tested more than 30,000 people for the virus, the U.S. has tested fewer than 500.

This vacuum in national leadership in a major crisis is inexcusable.

But instead of just lamenting the lack of trustworthy, competent leadership in the White House right now, the House of Representatives can actually do something to help solve the problem. The House has the power to build on the early steps taken in the Ways and Means and Foreign Affairs Committees, by conducting thorough, speedy, and effective oversight of this administration’s actions — or inaction — on coronavirus response, and to prepare legislation to fix it. It is up to the House to step in and use its broad powers of investigation granted by America’s founders, the Constitution, and more than 200 years of precedent.

The House must demand answers from the Trump administration, and then craft the legislative solutions needed to ensure our government protects the American people, both from the spread of this virus as well as President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE’s own ineptitude.

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Can we expect the same stonewalling from this president that he has demonstrated on virtually every other congressional investigation since he took office? Yes.

That means the House should be ready to go to court, swiftly at the first sign of obstruction, to demand the witness testimony and documentation it is due, per its wide-ranging power to investigate. 

There is no time to waste.

The administration’s coronavirus response — or lack of one — is justifiably gripping a nation that still places health care as its top priority. The House must now show that it is prepared to protect the American people when President Trump will not.

Elizabeth Wydra, a former clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, is president of Constitutional Accountability Center, a public interest law firm and think tank dedicated to promoting the progressive promise of the Constitution’s text and history. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethWydra.