This whole process is absolutely screaming out for more transparency and accountability. And Democrats must utilize their institutional powers to the fullest to provide it.
In an interview with me, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) suggested various lines of inquiry that a Democratic oversight effort can pursue. Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, noted some fact-finding is already underway, though it’s been complicated by the social distancing that has closed down Congress.
“There needs to be oversight to make sure the representations we’re hearing about the availability of testing are true — or if they’re not true, then the administration needs to be held accountable,” Schiff told me.
Obviously the sending out of test kits is not the same as the administering of them. But where are all the tests? Congress needs to figure that out.
Trump has badly corrupted our understanding of this process with his lies. When Trump was pressed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, about his state’s dire need for more testing equipment, Trump ludicrously claimed: “I haven’t heard about testing being a problem.”
Yet both Republican and Democratic governors have sharply disputed this, and reiterated their desperate need for more tests.
Then there’s the federal doling out of protective gear and ventilators.
“We need to make sure there’s no favoritism in terms of political allies, no discrimination against states or governors based on lack of presidential flattery,” Schiff told me.
What’s extraordinary is that this is a reasonable line of inquiry, based on the known facts.
An unsettling picture
The Post’s deeply reported look at this matter turned up evidence that is mixed but quite unsettling.
For instance, Florida has received prompt fulfillment of its requests, even as Trump and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis have talked up their alliance. Meanwhile, states with Democratic governors who have criticized Trump — such as Jay Inslee of Washington state — have continued urgently demanding more help.
Inslee reiterated this in an interview with Rachel Maddow, noting that his state is still “desperate” for personal protective equipment and test kits. Florida does not appear as desperate.
One White House official told The Post that Trump is mindful of Florida’s centrality to any electoral college win. But that official was anonymous, so one shouldn’t place too much weight on the claim. Federal officials insist requests are evaluated by federal task forces based on whether needs are best met by the national stockpile or by the private sector.
But there just are unexplained disparities. As The Post reported, states like Oklahoma and Kentucky have received more than they requested, while Illinois, Massachusetts and Maine have gotten only a fraction, which “has caused frustration and confusion in governors’ offices across the country.”
And Trump’s own public statements raise serious concerns, such as his demand that governors be “appreciative” of his administration’s response. As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer points out, the very fact that Trump said this raises doubts as to whether he recognizes any serious obligation to administer disaster response to all Americans along apolitical lines, given his extensive treatment of the opposition as illegitimate.
We need to know how deep this runs and what it has wrought.
Oversight is urgently needed
When I asked Schiff if Democrats need to do more oversight than they’ve been doing, he told me fact-finding is ongoing through various committees, though he didn’t share details, noting that these efforts are being complicated by social distancing.
Schiff also said Democrats are discussing ways of conducting “virtual hearings” on multiple fronts.
“I’ve had discussions with some of the Silicon Valley companies about potentially doing a virtual hearing on what they’re seeing with foreign interference in our next election,” Schiff told me.
Schiff also said his own committee is reviewing early briefings on coronavirus that intelligence officials gave to Congress. That could be fruitful in determining whether the administration didn’t act promptly enough given what was already known about the coronavirus threat.
To be fair, the state-by-state differences sometimes don’t track along lines that align with Trump’s political needs or with party. Michigan has been badly stiffed of needed equipment, yet Trump needs Michigan to win reelection. The governor of Maryland is a Republican, yet he, too, has excoriated Trump on testing (though Maryland is a blue state).
But at a minimum, all this confusion has given rise to serious questions that Congress needs to sort out. There’s a hook, too: Congress is legislating another economic rescue, which could conceivably include oversight mechanisms on equipment distribution.
“There’s an important oversight role for Congress during the crisis, to inform the next legislative package,” Schiff told me.
Indeed. Let’s get on that!