- There’s a brewing debate inside the Trump administration and in Congress over whether a bipartisan, independent commission should be established to study what went wrong with the US response to the coronavirus pandemic.
- “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and we simply can’t afford to repeat this tragedy,” Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat and longtime party leader, told Insider.
- People close to President Donald Trump say the White House is unlikely to consent to a deep-dive analysis into what his administration did wrong during the worst public health crisis to hit the country in a century.
- “I think he thinks everything was cool,” said one former senior Trump White House aide. “He’s not had great luck with investigations started against him. And I think he doesn’t need an investigation to know what the problems were.”
- Policy luminaries who have served on other major US oversight panels have suggestions for what Congress and the White House should be thinking about as they debate the issue.
- “Many commissions are for show,” said former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton. “They’re not really serious. They’re put up for political reasons. So you have to be careful about who is advocating what. The commission can mean many many things.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Major earth-shattering events in recent US history have spawned comprehensive deep dives to figure out what went wrong and how to ensure the disasters don’t happen again.
Now comes the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s a brewing debate inside the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill over whether anything akin to a bipartisan, bicameral independent commission is even needed — much less if it will happen.
“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and we simply can’t afford to repeat this tragedy,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat and longtime party leader.
Indeed, it’s very possible that the COVID commission concept will be another casualty of the Trump era — tossed aside, particularly if the president is re-elected in November.
People close to President Donald Trump told Insider that there are too many lingering ghosts from other probes that have shadowed his first term, from the Robert Mueller investigation to impeachment, that would make him especially queasy about consenting to a deep-dive analysis into what his administration did wrong during the worst public health crisis to hit the country in a century.
The key bill introduced to create a pandemic commission is from Rep. Adam Schiff, the same House Democratic committee leader who led the impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Raising the profile of the idea, Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania on Wednesday introduced a companion version of Schiff’s bill with 13 other fellow Democrats.
The bills haven’t gained any GOP support.
“It didn’t seem like the goal was really to come to solutions,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the No. 3 GOP leader in the chamber, said in an interview, where he singled out Schiff’s role pushing for the creation of the National Commission on the COVID–19 Pandemic in the United States.
For now, the whole coronavirus commission fight is stuck in typical Washington slog. Trump advisers told Insider there’s little appetite for the idea, at least not now with an election less than five months away and the virus still raging across the country. On Capitol Hill, turf wars might be the biggest obstacle as some of the most powerful lawmakers whose sign-off would be essential to seeing a law passed that establishes such a commission appear determined to hold onto jurisdiction over the issue in their own committees.
There are also genuine concerns that a sweeping review of a pandemic that so far has killed more than 130,000 Americans — more than the number that died in the Vietnam, Korean, Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars combined — can’t begin until the catastrophe itself is over, or at least more under control.
In that sense, the pandemic is very different from the one-off events of 9/11 or an oil spill. Here, no one knows when the pandemic will end, and cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are still surging.
The time to be talking about a COVID commission is now
Schiff’s office is pushing for the creation of a 10-person commission of outside experts as part of the next coronavirus stimulus package, which Congress is angling to pass later this month. Even if it did become law this summer, the bill stipulates that the commission wouldn’t be up and running until after the next presidential term begins in February 2021. Schiff’s office said in a release that it hoped the US would be through the pandemic by that point too.
Richard Ben-Veniste, who was on the 9/11 Commission, estimated that a similar panel for the coronavirus pandemic would take a year to 18 months to do its work once it’s up and running. He said he thought the timeline of the Schiff bill was appropriate.
“I understand the political reasons why Republicans would not want to start the work of such a commission now, and there is reason for it in terms of the pandemic continuing exposure,” he said. “However, the idea of such a commission and its creation should be something that is discussed now so that it can get up, running, and become effective as soon as possible.”
In the meantime, both House and Senate committees are holding hearings on the deadly virus that have quickly devolved into fodder for political attacks. In an appearance on Fox Business, Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, accused Democrats of “just bashing the president and blaming others” during a June 23 hearing where they grilled Trump administration health officials on the response.
There’s also a more focused congressional effort underway to oversee the distribution of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package passed in March as the nation’s economy started its downward spiral in tandem with the country’s shutdown. Called the CARES Act, the Trump-signed law set up a bipartisan House select subcommittee on the pandemic led by South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third highest-ranking Democrat in the chamber.
Paul Bledsoe, who was an adviser to the BP oil spill panel that met in the wake of the 2010 environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, said it was necessary for the US to go beyond existing oversight on Capitol Hill.
“When more than 125,000 citizens die, we need to have more than a couple congressional hearings,” he said. “If ever a problem cried out for a special commission to prevent future pandemics, it’s the COVID crisis.”
“If ever a problem cried out for a special commission to prevent future pandemics, it’s the COVID crisis.” – Paul Bledsoe, an adviser on the BP oil spill panel
Just because an outside commission doesn’t form immediately doesn’t mean there won’t be a bigger push down the line. The creation of an outside, independent 9/11 commission didn’t come right after the terrorist attacks. Public support wasn’t there for it yet. And President George W. Bush’s White House also didn’t support the idea.
Instead, congressional committees held bipartisan intelligence investigations and published their findings. Families of the victims of 9/11 then used those results to push for the formation of a commission. Bush ultimately signed legislation to create the commission more than a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“The record gave the families of victims enough support to argue they needed a commission, not just to look at intelligence but other issues including visas and immigration, and that’s why the commission got established,” said Eleanor Hill, who served as the 9/11 commission staff director.
Legislation isn’t the only way big commissions have gotten started. President Barack Obama established the oil spill analysis through executive order, and the panel, comprised of energy and environmental luminaries, looked not only at the immediate catastrophe but also the future of offshore oil drilling.
William Reilly, the former EPA chief during the George H.W. Bush administration and a member of the Obama-empowered commission, said the biggest drawback to setting up that panel through executive order was that it left them without subpoena power.
“You can make it work without it, but ideally you want it,” Reilly said.
Should Trump lose the election, the executive order approach would be available to a President Joe Biden, particularly if either party in Congress is unwilling to support the formation of a commission. But Congress could also try to bypass Trump if he’s reelected by attaching funding for a new panel to a must-pass spending bill. It also could task the Government Accountability Office with some of the work, though Reilly warned that that would receive far less publicity and would be unlikely to spur the kinds of policy changes that may be needed.
‘It’ll be just like the Russian hoax redux’
Several former top aides to the president were dubious that Trump would go along with any kind of comprehensive analysis of what happened in the US. They warned that any moves to set up such a probe would be viewed as a way to undercut the president.
“It’ll just be like the Russian hoax redux,” said a former senior White House senior aide. The former aide predicted there’d be no COVID-19 panel if Trump wins reelection and Republicans hold onto the Senate in the 2020 elections.
“I think he thinks everything was cool,” the ex-Trump aide added. “He’s not had great luck with investigations started against him. And I think he doesn’t need an investigation to know what the problems were.”
Spokespersons for the White House and Vice President Mike Pence, who has led the administration’s response to the pandemic, initially declined comment for this story.
But after the article published, Pence spokesman Devin O’Malley issued a statement saying the vice president and the White House’s COVID-19 task force “are 100 percent focused on responding to the virus to ensure physicians and nurses and those on the front lines of the pandemic have the resources they need to save lives.”
“We will leave any discussion of the need for potential commissions to Congress,” O’Malley added.
Paul Winfree, a former top deputy for domestic policy in the Trump White House who’s now with the Heritage Foundation, said the idea of a 9/11-style commission for the pandemic could still happen, depending on what happens in the US in the coming months.
But he said he doubts that such a panel would break through during the modern media era where there’s no such thing as a normal news cycle.
“Will anybody pay attention to it? I don’t know. I’m skeptical,” he said. “I think people’s attention spans will move to something else.”
“Will anybody pay attention to it? I don’t know. I’m skeptical. I think people’s attention spans will move to something else.” – Paul Winfree, a former Trump White House deputy policy director
The idea of a deeper-dive after-action report may get more focus if there’s a second wave of coronavirus cases, Winfree said.
“I honestly think that’s the game changer,” he said. “That could lead to any number of things depending on who’s in the White House.”
One of the former Trump aides said the problems in the US in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic centered around testing, state funding, and both federal and state government efforts to get masks and other protective medical equipment for the public. While there are lessons that can be learned there, this person said they can be found without launching a deep dive external effort.
“Democrats love blue ribbon commissions,” the former Trump aide said. “As a Republican I don’t think you solve that problem by creating a new agency, by creating new commissions, by creating more bureaucracy to solve a problem. I don’t see that as something the president would support either.”
On Capitol Hill, several Senate Republicans said they thought it would be understandable for Trump to balk at the idea of setting up a pandemic commission.
“You could see why [the Trump administration] would be leery of it because he’s had so many things weaponized against him in his time here so far,” said Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana. “But in general, whenever you come through something that has created so much dislocation, so many problems, you definitely need to figure out what you’ve learned from it and what you’d do differently.”
Others said they would support the formation of a commission once the US had overcome the pandemic.
“Let’s try to get a handle on the thing first,” said South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsay Graham, a close ally of Trump and frequent presidential golf partner. “But I’m not intellectually opposed to some panel looking at what did we do right, what did we do wrong, what can we do to fix it.”
‘You don’t want someone with a major ax to grind.’
Getting Republicans, Democrats, and the president onboard with a commission will be crucial to gaining public trust that the investigation will be neutral and thorough, several former commission members told Insider. They also recommended holding hearings all over the US.
Hill, who before leading the 9/11 commission served both as the Pentagon’s inspector general during the Clinton administration and staff director of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said getting support for the coronavirus panel was particularly important because “we are in a partisan high right now.”
If a coronavirus committee did manage to get off the ground, Hill said the list is long of topics it could consider, including coordination between states and the federal government, testing problems, what the Trump administration did early on, the hardships in getting medical and protective equipment, vaccine development, and the country’s reopenings.
Former Indiana Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, one of the 9/11 Commission leaders, said in an interview that legislation establishing a COVID panel must be “clear and precise.”
“Many commissions are for show,” he said. “They’re not really serious. They’re put up for political reasons. So you have to be careful about who is advocating what. The commission can mean many many things.”
Hamilton, who served for more than 30 years in Congress, estimated the cost of the commission would probably be in the tens of millions of dollars and require hiring “excellent people” away from their current jobs to take on a temporary position. The panelists also need staff to conduct interviews and write up its policy recommendations, some of which Congress will try to put into law.
“You want people who are truth seekers,” Hamilton said. “People who want to know what the facts are, what the truth is, and who are willing to go where the truth leads them. You don’t want someone with a major ax to grind.”