A bipartisan traffic jam is forming to demand a painstaking investigation into the missteps and policy holes that led to a massive coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
Lawmakers are circulating at least four proposals in the House intended to establish a coronavirus commission that delves deeply into the government decision-making that failed to prevent the mass illness and death now wracking the country — and to help guide preparations for any future pandemic.
It's a case study in crisis legislating. Though all four proposals are overwhelmingly similar — modeled after the 9/11 Commission that reviewed the failure to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — the backers are making competing cases for why their specific bills should advance. And the reactions they're generating have more to do with the identity of the sponsors than the substance of the measures, though Republican resistance could be an obstacle for any of the plans.
For example, a proposal by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — who President Donald Trump has fashioned as an archrival — drew instant derision from Republicans, who labeled it an effort meant to harm Trump and launch "another bogus impeachment." Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who helped lead Trump's impeachment defense, said it is too soon for Schiff to begin discussing a long-term lookback at what went wrong.
Yet Schiff's proposal is nearly identical to a measure offered by Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.), who have hailed it as a model of even-keeled bipartisanship.
"There's no room for politics during a pandemic," Murphy said in a phone interview. "I think having a bipartisan proposal is one of the key ways you can assure people you're not trying to make a political tool but rather that you're trying to get to real results and improved capabilities for the American people."
But the competing proposals arrive at a time of extreme distrust between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Though Congress passed three massive coronavirus relief bills with overwhelming bipartisan support last month, any hope of a moment of national unity has been dashed amid the rising tension of a presidential campaign and a freewheeling response to the crisis by President Donald Trump, who has lashed out at his rivals from a White House podium on a daily basis.
Any commission would also be in addition to the proposed House select committee responsible for real-time oversight of the emergency relief packages, as well as the various panels established by the $2 trillion CARES Act tasked with monitoring the funds.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Trump's meandering handling of the virus has cost lives, and her proposal for a select committee to oversee the administration's actions, helmed by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) met immediate resistance from Republicans who called it a thinly veiled effort to undermine Trump.
"It’s an open question as to whether we have our members participate in something like that. I’m not sure I would," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "It’s so transparently political. This is just a committee to harass the president when he’s in the middle of dealing with a national crisis."
Clyburn, however, said Sunday that he didn't intend his panel to dwell on the past so much as ensure the response is handled properly going forward.
"We're not going to be looking back on what the president may or may not have done back before this crisis hit. The crisis is with us," he said on CNN's "State of the Union." "The American people are now out of work, millions of them out of work. The question is whether or not the money that's appropriated will go to support them and their families, or whether or not this money will end up in the pockets of a few profiteers."
But the rapidly multiplying proposals for a forensic review of where the nation went wrong suggest the appetite for that kind of retrospective investigation is rising.
Under Schiff and Murphy's proposals, a 10-member commission would be evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats and the president would pick the chair. In each plan, the commission — armed with subpoena power – would likely begin its work after the 2020 election, an effort to insulate the panel from campaign season sniping and provide distance from the immediate coronavirus crisis as well.
A third proposal from Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), which also has bipartisan sponsors, is nearly identical as well. Under his plan, the chair of the 10-member commission would be selected jointly by the House speaker and Senate majority leader.
The three plans closely track the structure of the 9/11 commission, which was a 10-member panel, evenly divided among the political parties. Schiff and Murphy's proposal also borrow the 9/11 panel's powers: to issue subpoenas and refer any defiance for prosecution. They also require federal agencies to expedite security clearances to commission members and staff. Davis' proposal does not include these features.
The most distinct proposal comes from House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and the panel's other Democratic members. Their proposal features a 25-member commission selected entirely by the leaders of House and Senate committees. The panel would be required to begin an 18-month investigation within 45 days of the plan's passage.
Pelosi has voiced support for the concept of an "after-action" review but emphasized last week that she's more focused on the immediate crisis and would consider the structure of a commission later.
"It has to be bipartisan," she said at a Thursday news conference. "And, again, anything that affects this many people in our country, their health and affects our economy in such a major way, involves the allocation of so many trillions of dollars, we really do have to subject to an after‑action review, not to point fingers but to make sure that it doesn't happen again in the manner in which it happened, hopefully not at all."
Schiff and Thompson told POLITICO they've spoken to Pelosi about their plans but declined to characterize her response. They also indicated they've had conversations with each other about convening all of the commission sponsors to "harmonize" their plans and agree on a path forward.
Schiff said despite his reputation as a bogeyman to Republicans, he's confident he can lead a bipartisan push. He noted that even during Trump's impeachment trial, while Schiff was leading the prosecution on the Senate floor, he helped drive a bipartisan House effort to recognize the Armenian genocide.
"I can't worry about what the Republicans who view this from a partisan point of view are going to do," Schiff said, contending that most of his GOP colleagues would "support good policy, notwithstanding the fact that Fox demonizes me."
"I'm certainly doing whatever I can do to make the structure of this something that can be embraced by both parties,” he added.
Schiff said he's been conferring with Tim Roemer, a former architect of the 9/11 Commission, to structure his proposal. Murphy, on the other hand, cites her experience as a national security official, who joined the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 attacks and focused on strategic planning. Murphy, a leader of the House's moderate Blue Dog Democrats, has warned her caucus against appearing too partisan in their responses to coronavirus.
"Both parties can share some responsibility for having played a little bit of politics on this issue," she said.
Thompson said the goal of a commission would be distinct from the multiple layers of oversight that Congress has approved to monitor the ongoing coronavirus response, including the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars to shore up the economy amid the pandemic.
The recently passed $2 trillion CARES Act included a congressional commission to oversee the Trump administration's handling of the funds, a special inspector general to review the funding decisions and a committee of federal watchdogs to oversee the entire implementation of the law.
"I think it's not too soon to start thinking about how can we guarantee the American people that if something like this would happen again, there is a doable plan in place that can be executed," Thompson said. "I don't think there's any question about [whether] this helter-skelter response to this pandemic is orderly, transparent or effective."
"I just think the interest of the American public would be better served," Thompson continued, "if we can look back on this pandemic and make America stronger."
Sarah Ferris contributed reporting to this story.