The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers push pandemic probe modeled on 9/11 Commission

The fate of the bipartisan effort, which must pass both chambers and get Biden’s signature, is uncertain amid GOP- and Democrat-led investigations

More than 630,000 flags mark lives lost in the United States to covid-19 as part of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg's “In America: Remember” on the Mall in Washington in September 2021. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A Senate panel voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to establish an independent task force to probe the U.S. response to the pandemic — the closest lawmakers have come to supporting such an investigation, two years into the crisis.

The vote on that bipartisan legislation, part of the Prevent Pandemics Act advanced by the Senate’s health committee, is the first step in a fraught political journey, and comes as Democrats and Republicans have pursued their own probes, seeking to shape public perceptions ahead of midterm elections that could alter the balance of power in Washington.

“We all understand there’s more work to do if we are to fully recognize the lessons of this pandemic,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and stressed the need for an independent, bipartisan approach. “When this committee started hosting briefings and hearings on covid-19, I never imagined it would become as political as it has.”

The oversight efforts already underway are increasingly partisan, including a House panel set up by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2020, which has focused on the Trump administration’s missteps and is set to finalize its report later this year, as well as inquiries led by individual Republicans, such as Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Roger Marshall (Kan.), into how the virus originated and whether federal agencies inadvertently played a role by funding risky research.

Those investigations have spilled into contentious congressional hearings, helped shape prime-time television coverage and become part of campaign pitches, as Republicans promise to launch new probes of Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, and Democrats vow to defend him.

But two decades after U.S. leaders agreed on the need for an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, officials today are split along party lines about where to focus and what questions must be answered about the U.S. response — even after the disease caused by the novel coronavirus has claimed nearly 1 million lives across the country and more than 9,000 people die each week.

Marked By COVID, an advocacy group for people who lost loved ones to the pandemic, has spent nearly two years calling for an independent probe into the U.S. response that focuses on “lessons learned” and avoids finger-pointing, said Kristin Urquiza, the group’s co-founder.

“It’s about our loved ones, but it’s also about something so much bigger — what we expect from our government, how it handles itself [and] rebuilding so that we can be resilient” for the next crisis, said Urquiza, whose father died of covid-19 in June 2020. “This can’t just devolve into a witch hunt of President Trump, or China, or Dr. Fauci.”

The bill introduced by Murray and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the health panel’s top Republican, calls for lawmakers representing both parties to choose a 12-member task force that would inquire into the nation’s readiness and response to the coronavirus on the federal, state and local levels, and issue a final report and recommendations within 18 months. Their broader pandemic legislation cleared their panel in a 20-2 vote on Tuesday but still needs to receive a floor vote in both chambers of Congress before potentially becoming law.

The measure won support from unlikely allies such as Marshall, who has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the federal response.

“We need a 9/11-style commission just to figure this out,” he said in an interview.

Until now, efforts to unite Washington around such an effort have largely failed, although surveys show that many Americans have concerns about the government’s response. Only 40 percent of Americans said President Biden was doing an excellent or good job responding to the virus, slightly higher than the 36 percent who said President Donald Trump did an excellent or good job, according to a Pew Research poll released last month.

Views are split along partisan lines, with liberal voters more worried about coronavirus risks and inclined to fault the Trump administration for a slow response — and conservative voters playing down the virus and accusing federal agencies of overreach.

Many probes underway in Congress reinforce those partisan perspectives, said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies congressional oversight.

Republicans’ growing “theatrics” in attacking Fauci are geared toward “the half of America thinking that he’s the devil incarnate,” Hudak said. Meanwhile, “Democrats realize there is almost a zero chance that they’re going to keep the House, and so any … oversight reporting that’s critical of the Trump administration has to be done before the new Congress is sworn in.”

The House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, chaired by Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a top Biden ally, remains focused on plumbing the response under Trump, seeking new evidence of political interference and mismanagement that Democrats say allowed the virus to spread unchecked in early 2020. In recent weeks, top Trump officials — including former presidential adviser Scott Atlas and former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Stephen Hahn — have privately sat for interviews with Clyburn’s panel, according to committee aides. Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield also is to speak privately with the panel.

Republicans, meanwhile, are increasingly coalescing around their own questions, such as whether the U.S. government played a role in the pandemic by funding “gain of function” research that allowed scientists to supercharge viruses in laboratories. Last year, the U.S. intelligence community ruled out the possibility that the virus had been developed as a bioweapon by China but did not reach consensus beyond that, saying it needed China’s cooperation to go further — an unlikely prospect. Scientists also say there is no hard evidence that the virus escaped from a laboratory, and many who have investigated the issue think that it spilled into the human population from animals sold in a Wuhan market.

Several GOP senators and House committees also are targeting Fauci, alleging that he has not been forthcoming about the funding of such research by his agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci has denied such allegations.

GOP leaders hope that if they win back one or both chambers of Congress, they can hold hearings and dangle the threat of subpoenas to compel testimony and force the White House to turn over documents. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, has vowed to use those powers to investigate Fauci, after warring with him in congressional hearings.

“If we take over the Senate next year, I’ll be chairman of the health committee, and I pledge to use the subpoena power to get every last record about the origin of the virus, about Fauci,” Paul said on “The Megyn Kelly Show” in December.

Paul on Monday also introduced legislation seeking to eliminate Fauci’s position at the National Institutes of Health, claiming that the longtime federal official has accumulated too much power, although the amendment failed to pass the Senate health panel Tuesday.

In an interview, Fauci addressed the possibility of Republicans’ retaking Congress and what it would mean for his work.

“It’s Benghazi hearings all over again,” Fauci said, referring to the GOP-led investigations of Hillary Clinton’s leadership of the State Department during the 2012 attacks on U.S. compounds in Libya. That long-running investigation found no new evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton but was a staple of conservative media for years.

“They’ll try to beat me up in public, and there’ll be nothing there,” Fauci added. “But it will distract me from doing my job, the way it’s doing right now.”

Meanwhile, outside experts wrestling with questions about the origin of the virus say they aren’t sure a bitterly divided Congress is capable of seeking answers.

“This is probably better left to an independent commission that has some arms’ distance from the politics of the hour and is able to claim some kind of credible bipartisanship,” said J. Stephen Morrison, who leads global health policy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and has helped advise an independent coronavirus probe first organized through the University of Virginia.

While past presidents and lawmakers more quickly agreed on investigations of discrete, major events, including the 9/11 attacks and the space shuttle Challenger explosion, Morrison said the pandemic has metastasized into a uniquely politicized crisis.

“The exhaustion, the anger, the frustration that is shared across America cuts across political lines now, and that’s coming through Congress,” he said.

Dueling news releases

Congress launched its initial investigations into the government’s coronavirus response in early 2020, with lawmakers in both parties asking why the United States fell short on providing tests, protective equipment and other key supplies to fight the pandemic. In April, the House set up its select subcommittee focused on the virus; it was framed as a bipartisan endeavor to oversee trillions of dollars in federal spending in congressional rescue packages, but it increasingly focused on Trump administration missteps in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Nearly two years, about 20 interviews and hundreds of thousands of pages of federal documents later, Democrats on that panel say they have uncovered new details of mismanagement, such as then-White House adviser Stephen Hatfill’s detailing how Trump’s failed election challenges distracted from the administration’s virus response. The panel also produced a 46-page report in December summarizing its probes into political interference, pandemic relief and how sectors such as the meatpacking industry failed to protect workers. Aides say they are still awaiting documents requested during the Trump administration.

But the panel’s work has increasingly devolved into dueling news releases, with lawmakers unable to agree on the focus of their probes or even what key witnesses tell them.

In October, for instance, Democrats on the panel released snippets of a private interview with Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House response to the coronavirus. According to Clyburn, Birx confirmed that Trump’s actions had “undermined the nation’s ability to respond effectively” to the pandemic. But the panel’s Republicans put out their own memorandum that used Birx’s quotes to support their criticism of Biden, such as her assertion that the current U.S. government was not doing enough to save lives.

The panel also has clashed with Peter Navarro, Trump’s former trade adviser, who has claimed that Democrats’ probe is a “witch hunt” and refused to comply with subpoenas to turn over documents and sit for an interview.

Fauci fixation

Meanwhile, Republicans such as Marshall have increasingly trained their own probes on Fauci, the career government official who has become a scapegoat in conservative media after more than a year of concerted attacks.

“I think there’s plenty of blame to go around,” Marshall said after being asked whether the Trump administration made its own missteps. “It just seems, though, that Dr. Fauci was the bottleneck that stopped all the significant information from getting to the top level, and then squelched the most important fact, that indeed this could have been made in the lab in Wuhan, China.”

Republicans on the House panel last month released emails showing that Fauci, former National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, and about a dozen leading scientists and virologists reviewed early data on the coronavirus and its potential origins on a Feb. 1, 2020, phone call. Some participants in the call initially thought the virus looked unnatural and might have been engineered. But they publicly concluded the opposite in the days after that call, saying the evidence suggested a natural origin — a development that Republicans claim was motivated by Fauci and Collins worrying about an NIH grant supporting research on coronaviruses in China.

Republicans also requested that seven scientists who participated in that call sit for interviews and turn over documents about the possibility that the virus leaked from a lab. None of the scientists has yet to comply, a committee aide said.

Representatives of two participants in the call, including Jeremy Farrar, an adviser to the British government and director of Wellcome Trust, a charitable health foundation, denied that Fauci and Collins pressured the scientists to change their views.

“Jeremy would like to make it absolutely clear that there was at no stage any political influence or interference during [those] conversations,” Maggie Stratton, a Wellcome spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “Neither Dr. Fauci, nor any other U.S. public official, attempted to apply any political influence or interference during the conversations referenced in early 2020, or in the research carried out, or at any other time during the pandemic period.”

Republicans said they need more government transparency before reaching their own conclusions. House Republicans have repeatedly asked for two of Fauci’s deputies to brief them on a grant to the research organization EcoHealth Alliance, which helped fund bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Federal officials have said the grant could not have inadvertently sparked the pandemic, citing analysis that the bat viruses in the experiment are not closely related, genetically, to the novel coronavirus.

In an interview, Fauci said that he welcomed “good faith” congressional oversight but that Republicans’ “distortion of reality is stunning.” He added that he mostly listened on the Feb. 1, 2020, conference call and that the scientists came to their own conclusions about the virus’s origins.

Many of the GOP-led probes “are taking away from our effort of fighting this outbreak,” said Fauci, estimating that his agency’s team of legislative staffers is “probably spending 40, 50 percent of their time” responding to requests about the virus’s origins and other questions that he said are not grounded in facts. “It is just an overwhelming burden, asking for information that’s driven by conspiracy.”

The 81-year-old career official also has become a lightning rod ahead of this year’s elections. Republicans including Paul are fundraising off pledges to “fire Fauci,” while Democrats including Reps. Val Demings (Fla.), Julia Brownley (Calif.) and Raul Ruiz (Calif) are campaigning on promises to protect him.

Hudak, the Brookings Institution expert, said the focus on Fauci was emblematic of an oversight process that had lost its way.

“You have half of America who doesn’t believe anything that he says. Another half of America believes what he says is gospel,” Hudak said. “Neither of those are a good combination for effective oversight.”

Loading...