From Afar, Congress Moves to Oversee Trump Coronavirus Response

From Afar, Congress Moves to Oversee Trump Coronavirus Response

WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi, moving aggressively to scrutinize the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, said Thursday that she would seek to create a special bipartisan committee to oversee all aspects of the government’s response, including how it distributes more than $2 trillion in emergency aid.

The announcement, which drew immediate objections from President Trump and the top House Republican, came as leaders were struggling to determine how Congress could perform its most basic functions — both legislating and acting as a check on a president who has consistently stonewalled attempts at oversight — when lawmakers were scattered around the country with the Capitol shuttered.

The plan to create a select committee, which would require a House vote, reflects a particular sense of urgency among Democrats to keep a close watch on how Mr. Trump carries out the more than $2 trillion stimulus package that he signed into law last week. The measure created vast programs, including a $500 billion corporate bailout program and a $350 billion small-business loan initiative, and provided $150 million for states and cities coping with the coronavirus.

Democrats insisted on attaching strict oversight measures to the bailout money, but Mr. Trump — who was impeached last year on charges of abuse of power and obstructing congressional attempts to investigate — has suggested he has the authority to decide whether an inspector general appointed to oversee it has to share information with Congress.

“Where there is money, there is often frequently mischief,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters on Thursday during a telephonic news conference to replace her usual weekly briefing on Capitol Hill, another tradition upended by social distancing.

Ms. Pelosi said the panel would have subpoena power, meaning it could demand testimony and documents from the Trump administration. That raised the prospect of a new round of constitutional showdowns between Mr. Trump and the Democrat-led House over information about how the administration addressed the coronavirus threat, and its actions as the disease began rampaging across the country.

At the White House, Mr. Trump reacted angrily to the idea of a special committee, criticizing Democrats for “conducting these partisan investigations in the middle of a pandemic.”

“I want to remind everyone here in our nation’s capital, especially in Congress, that this is not the time for politics, endless partisan investigations — here we go again,” he said. “It’s witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt.”

Already on Thursday, Democrats were questioning the enactment of a $100 billion worker relief package passed last month after the Labor Department issued guidance that gave wide latitude for businesses with 50 or fewer employees to decline to offer the paid leave benefit included in the law.

Congress worked with remarkable speed and bipartisanship to pass the stimulus package, as the Senate remained in session — even as some of its members fell ill — and more than 200 House members returned to Washington to vote. But leaders of both parties concede that the road ahead will be even more challenging with much of the country on lockdown and lawmakers gone for the foreseeable future.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, said in an interview Thursday that lawmakers are “just in the very first stages of figuring out” how they would operate in the coming days. In a mark of how rapidly the debate is shifting over how to convene Congress amid a pandemic, Mr. Hoyer said he had dropped his opposition to allowing the House to vote remotely, something he previously dismissed as setting “a bad precedent.”

“Circumstances have made it clear,” Mr. Hoyer said, that remote voting must be considered. “9/11 raised the specter of members not being able to get back together, but it did not create the reality of that,” he added. “This has created the reality of members being unable to come together.”

But in the Senate, Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, ruled out the possibility. Mr. Blunt, who as the chairman of the Committee on Rules and Administration oversees the chamber’s operations, said there were lines the Senate would not, as of now, contemplate crossing.

“To make final decisions, to mark up a bill, to vote on a bill on the floor, I think you will see a traditional approach for a long time,” he said. “But I think we will be much more flexible in terms of how we gather information.”

Beyond the pandemic, lawmakers have a lot on their plates. They must pass annual spending bills to keep the government open, as well as their annual military policy bill. They must conduct routine oversight of the Trump administration’s initiatives and policies, including the stimulus programs, immigration, education and health care.

Mr. Hoyer acknowledged that there were a string of unanswered questions, including whether committees would meet by teleconference and how the public — accustomed to watching deliberations on C-SPAN — would be able to observe lawmakers conducting the nation’s business when most of the work was being done on private conference calls.

Already, some committees are making adjustments. The Senate Armed Services Committee, which is working on the bill that sets policy for the nation’s military, has developed a process it calls “paper hearings,” in which committee members will post questions to the Pentagon on the panel’s website and officials will have one week to answer them. Gone will be the spontaneous back-and-forth of hearings in person.

The Appropriations Committees, which control all government spending, are adamant that they still work to meet their own deadlines with staff members working remotely with federal agencies to sort out their funding needs. Before the outbreak, House leaders had set a goal of finishing their versions of the 12 spending bills by the end of June, but it is unclear if the body would even be able to meet to vote then if they were complete.

“We haven’t passed appropriations bills, we have the defense authorization bill and who knows what else might come up, either in the United States or around the world,” Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chairman of the Rules Committee, said in an interview. “I think we need to make it clear to the administration that Congress is not closed.”

Oversight of regular government functions might prove more difficult, particularly when much of lawmakers’ time will be consumed by the response to the pandemic.

Ms. Pelosi said the new committee would be led by one of her top deputies, Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and the majority whip, and would have an expert staff to search for waste, fraud and abuse. The speaker also lent her support to an independent, nonpartisan after-action investigation like the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but said that would have to come later.

But Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, called the special committee “redundant,” noting that the stimulus law already created a congressionally appointed oversight board. He also objected to the selection of Mr. Clyburn, who created a stir last month after it was leaked that he privately told colleagues that the government aid package offered Democrats “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”

As more federal employees work from home and other nonessential operations lag, just getting documentation — much less testimony — may become difficult for a whole range of congressional inquiries.

The release by the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Thursday of Federal Emergency Management Agency documents showing a shortage of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies suggested that, at least for now, such records continue to flow.

Other complications are already evident.

The House and Senate intelligence committees, responsible for monitoring a range of threats to the country, have no way to remotely receive full classified briefings ordinarily conducted in secure rooms inside the Capitol. While the committees’ top leaders have secure phone lines in their homes that allow for certain updates, they must trek to Capitol Hill to fully monitor threats facing the country.

“We are doing the best we can under the circumstances, but it can’t help but have an effect on our ability to do the oversight,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee. Mr. Schiff said that he had twice ventured into the Capitol to receive urgent classified updates, asking his staff to spread out at the far ends of his office as he spoke with intelligence officials.

Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the Administration Committee, has been vetting applications like Webex and Zoom to see if they might allow committees to meet virtually, or at least gather testimony remotely from government witnesses. But it presents thorny technical and constitutional questions for a body that has never meaningfully convened online.

“You read a rule and it says, the committee will come to order,” Ms. Lofgren said. “Do you find there is a virtual quorum present? Could you do that? Most of the rules don’t say.”

Lawmakers have quietly made other, smaller changes to try to ease the way on certain issues. Mr. Blunt said he had authorized senators to use their annual travel allowances to charter private planes to come and go from Washington if needed.

Technology can help, but it is no substitute for in-person encounters, said Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. He said the panel’s members had serious concerns about the security situation in Afghanistan, including whether the Taliban, which now controls 40 percent of Afghan territory, would disassociate itself from Al Qaeda.

But the panel has decided to postpone taking testimony from the top American general there until he can come in person, in part for fear that the Russians or Chinese could hack into a video teleconference.

“I’m less trusting of technology than a lot of young people are,” Mr. Reed said. “It depersonalizes the most important part of legislative life, which is personal interaction.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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