Bipartisan lawmakers want review of State Department repatriation efforts during pandemic

Bipartisan lawmakers want review of State Department repatriation efforts during pandemic

The top lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee are looking to “review” the State Department's efforts to repatriate Americans stranded abroad amid the coronavirus pandemic, as thousands of citizens are still seeking help getting back to the U.S.

Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOpen Skies withdrawal throws nuclear treaty into question The Memo: Trump agenda rolls on amid pandemic State Department scrutiny threatens Pompeo's political ambitions MORE (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga says supporting small business single most important thing we should do now; Teva's Brendan O'Grady says U.S. should stockpile strategic reserve in drugs like Strategic Oil Reserve House GOP to launch China probes beyond COVID-19 Trump administration preparing to require that some essential drugs be made in US: report MORE (R-Texas) on Tuesday sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoChinese state media: Wuhan conducted 6.5 million coronavirus tests in 9 days The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip MORE and Government Accountability Office (GAO) Comptroller General Gene Dodaro seeking information on what steps the federal government has taken to help Americans in countries that have closed their borders to control the spread of COVID-19.

“While large-scale repatriation efforts associated with COVID-19 are moving towards a conclusion, new challenges may emerge in the future either in connection with COVID-19 or other similar global crises,” the lawmakers wrote to Pompeo.

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“It is critical that the Department continue to prepare for such scenarios, using lessons it learned in the earliest days of this global repatriation effort ... to ensure that future repatriations can be carried out swiftly and smoothly," they said.

The State Department, which has helped repatriate more than 85,000 Americans from 131 countries and territories since the end of January, came under scrutiny early on from stranded travelers and lawmakers who said the agency and U.S. embassies did not do enough to assist Americans.

The GAO has launched a review of the State Department’s repatriation efforts as part of its responsibilities under the CARES Act, signed into law on March 27. The agency is auditing the State Department's planning and implementation of strategies used to bring stranded Americans home.

“The exact audit objectives will be determined as the work proceeds,” Chuck Young, managing director of public affairs for the GAO, wrote in an email to The Hill on Tuesday. “But we expect it will cover planning, implementation, and lessons learned from State’s efforts to repatriate Americans.”

The State Department is tracking less than 10,000 Americans still seeking assistance returning from abroad, although the agency has said that number is highly fluid based on circumstances of travel in certain countries and the desire by some citizens to return to the U.S.

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The lawmakers on Tuesday requested that their review include answers to questions like how prepared the State Department was to launch repatriation efforts at the start of the crisis, its communication with stranded Americans and the funding of flights and the cost to stranded travelers.

In particular, the lawmakers are asking the GAO to review the cost of State Department-chartered flights.

Stranded travelers have accused airlines of price gouging for repatriation flights.

The lawmakers also want the GAO to look at what social distancing measures and provisions of personal protective equipment State Department staff employed to help limit the spread of COVID-19 while carrying out repatriation efforts.

“State Department efforts to repatriate Americans continue and could spike again depending on virus-related developments around the globe,” the members wrote to Dodaro.

“An audit of the strategic planning and implementation of these efforts is vital and will help Congress determine the effectiveness of the strategies utilized and possible ways to enhance the Department of State’s capabilities to repatriate Americans in crisis, including through additional legislation or resources. We look forward to receiving the results of this effort," the letter said.

A State Department spokesperson in its response to an inquiry from The Hill said the agency does not comment on correspondence from Congress. 
 
Updated at 10:30 a.m.