Pelosi taps 7 lawmakers to select coronavirus committee

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday appointed seven Democratic members to a newly created House panel meant to police the Trump administration’s coronavirus response efforts.

The appointments are expected to ignite a wave of congressional action to spotlight President Donald Trump’s handling of the multitrillion-dollar pandemic relief packages meant to confront the illness’ devastating toll on American life.

"We must make sure that the historic investment of taxpayer dollars made in the CARES Act is being used wisely and efficiently to help those in need, not be exploited by profiteers and price-gougers," Pelosi said in a "Dear Colleague" letter.

Pelosi had already announced that she intended to name the House’s third-ranking Democrat, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), to lead the committee. On Wednesday, she selected six additional members, a mix of trusted lieutenants, veteran policy-writers and a vulnerable freshman to fill the high-profile positions.

The panel will include three chairs of existing House committees: Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Small Business Committee Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.). Pelosi also named Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a freshman from a competitive district.

It’s unclear whether Republicans will participate in the panel’s work. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) may name up to five additional panelists, though some of his allies have encouraged him to boycott the committee altogether, blasting it as a political exercise. Republicans have indicated their decision may rest on the makeup of the Democratic roster.

But Pelosi has dismissed their concerns and insisted that the new oversight panel will eschew partisan politics and instead focus on realtime accountability for problems that arise amid the crisis response — from testing shortages to helping hospitals access lifesaving medical equipment.

Clyburn has not said yet how the panel — which will function as part of the House Oversight Committee — plans to operate, or what its specific focus will be, though the new members skew heavily toward financial services and small business expertise.

Democratic leadership and House committee leaders are just beginning to figure out how to conduct remote work, debating ways to hold virtual hearings at a time when lawmakers remain homebound.

At least one panel, the House Appropriations Committee, will hold an in-person hearing next week. That subcommittee, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), has not yet announced witnesses but has privately signaled that it intends to bring in top officials in the federal response, starting with Dr. Anthony Fauci.

House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters, takes her mask off to speak during a signing ceremony for the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, H.R. 266, after it passed the House on Capitol Hill, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Washington. The almost $500 billion package will head to President Donald Trump for his signature. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The new oversight panel, though, will immediately become a focal point of Congress’ action amid the ongoing crisis, with Democrats eager to shed light on the administration’s missteps in handling the pandemic, which they’ve already labeled a key contributor to the severe outbreak that has ground the country to a halt.

And despite Pelosi’s assurances, the committee’s work is destined to become heavily politicized. Waters, for example, has long been seen by Trump allies as an archnemesis of the president, agitating for his impeachment and removal months before most of her colleagues were prepared to join her. And other Republicans have argued that the committee’s only purpose can be to run interference for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as the calendar inches toward Election Day.

Democrats have countered that Republicans’ complaints ring hollow, given the heavily politicized Benghazi Committee that dogged Hillary Clinton’s run in 2016, despite admissions from some Republicans that the panel, at least in part, had a political purpose.

In addition to the fire it has taken from Republicans, the panel has drawn head-scratching from some Democrats who already serve on the House’s many oversight committees. Some have privately wondered how the new panel will interact with existing investigative committees, a slew of which have already signaled that they plan to probe the White House’s response to the outbreak.

Congress already established a new commission of lawmakers and aides to oversee the largest component of the coronavirus relief effort: a $500 billion U.S. treasury fund to rescue struggling industries and companies. Pelosi recently named Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) as one of the panel’s five members, joining McCarthy’s pick Rep. French Hill, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and former Elizabeth Warren aide Bharat Ramamurti.

Pelosi’s choice of Shalala, a former Health and Human Services secretary who hails from a competitive congressional district, disappointed some on the party’s left flank who had hoped she would pick Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who had openly lobbied for the post.

Porter was also left of Clyburn’s panel, further irritating progressives in the House and nationally who have pushed for her to have a spot.

Some Democrats, too, have privately worried that the panel would wind up simply becoming a political bludgeon against Trump, just months until the November elections — potentially undermining the panel’s actual oversight findings.

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‘I do worry about the optics’: Congress struggles to get off the sidelines

Congress is missing.

With every level of government consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, the 535 members of the House and Senate have been relegated to the sidelines, scrounging for relevance while the fights of consequence unfold without them. Even as they’ve busied themselves back home, lawmakers are desperate for a way to cast votes or hold hearings from afar.

In their absence from Washington, lawmakers worry they’ve ceded the spotlight to President Donald Trump, who has eagerly overwhelmed the national bandwidth with factually-challenged press conferences, executive orders and feuds with governors, who have also taken starring roles in the nation’s coronavirus response.

The frustrations are most acute among the Democrats’ endangered members, particularly, freshmen, who worry the American public can’t see their members actually fulfilling their duties in Congress — a perception of idleness that could put their re-elections on the line.

Congressional leaders are now trying to cobble unanimous support for massive economic rescue legislation that can pass while lawmakers remain isolated in their homes. That means enormous government decisions — like when to reopen the country — as made with the House and Senate having virtually no say in the matter, fueling claims of a “do nothing” Congress even as members say they're busier than ever handling the crisis from home.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file members are stuck waiting on the legislative front, drafting letters to the White House and adding to their lengthening to-do lists when, eventually, they return to Washington. Lawmakers say it's even tougher to stomach as congressional leaders struggle to agree on a way to shore up a key small business relief fund that went dry this week.

“I am a frustrated member of Congress who’s joined by many similarly frustrated members of Congress,” said freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a vocal proponent of allowing Congress to hold remote hearings and debate.

“We are operating still as a 19th century institution in a 21st century unprecedented crisis,” Phillips said. “We cannot leave it just to the administration to have the megaphone.”

But so far, that’s exactly what has happened. Lawmakers have been limited to issuing strongly worded statements as Trump has sought to reshape a narrative about his administration’s early reluctance to take aggressive steps to tackle the coronavirus, which contributed to the massive outbreak the nation is now suffering. He’s used his bully pulpit to assert the “total” authority to override states’ public health decisions and reopen the economy as soon as May 1 against the advice of infectious disease experts.

The frustration isn't limited to the majority: A group of about two-dozen Republicans is increasingly restive and threatening to return to Washington ahead of the House's return date to try and jump start action.

Congress did, of course, already pass roughly $2.5 trillion to jumpstart the federal government’s response to the dual economic and public health crises. And individual members have become crucial, influential advocates for their constituents as they deal with local challenges, such as medical equipment shortages in health care facilities and businesses on the brink of closure.

But as the crisis kept lawmakers homebound for all of April, leaders in both parties have remained resistant to allowing other business outside of the Capitol — like electronic voting or hearings — to go on, raising concerns of security and institutional precedent.

The House and Senate are both slated to hold sessions on May 4, a delayed return that could slip further as the threat of contracting and spreading coronavirus remains high. House committees have issued demands for documents and testimony to aid their probes of the administration’s coronavirus response and to identify holes in the nation’s rescue effort. But public hearings have been on pause for weeks, and there’s little that House committee leaders can do if the White House resists its efforts

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 17: Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) listens as members of the House Rules Committee cast their votes on amendments to the House Resolution 755 on December 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. The Rules Committee held a full committee hearing today and voted along party lines to approve guidelines set out in House Resolution 755 and send the two Articles of Impeachment of President Trump to the House of Representatives. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

What’s emerged in the absence of policymaking is a boisterous inside-baseball debate over House procedures: namely, whether lawmakers are even constitutionally permitted to cast votes remotely. House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern (D-Mass.) recommended Thursday that the House adopt a “low-tech” remote voting procedure to allow those in the Capitol to cast votes at the direction of their far-flung colleagues.

Such a process may draw challenges and would require the full House to convene in order to approve such a rule change. And some members said it didn’t resolve problems like House committees being unable to meet and debate legislation remotely. One lawmaker called the idea “bullshit.”

McGovern’s push followed steadily rising complaints from lawmakers eager to take actions of consequence while their constituents are struggling. Earlier in the week, roughly 20 members, led by the House’s most vulnerable moderate members, proposed a resolution directing House leaders to come up with a plan — any plan — to allow for remote congressional activity.

Rank-and-file lawmakers are also clamoring for a way to conduct congressional hearings from afar, a platform that would at least allow members of the public to see their lawmakers at work, pressing for answers amid the pandemic. But there’s been no agreed-upon system for such hearings, which would also likely require a rules change. And some video platforms have been flagged as potential security risks, leaving some lawmakers skittish about holding online hearings.

“People think we can do Congress by Zoom. Zoom is a Chinese entity that we’ve been told not to even trust the security of. So there are challenges, it’s not as easy as you would think,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week on MSNBC, referring to the online video conference platform.

Some lawmakers have made plans to hold remote events anyways: Starting next week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus will livestream a series of unofficial hearings on Facebook, featuring public testimony on issues like their national paycheck guarantee plan.

But vulnerable Democratic incumbents are especially worried that the public will view them as shirking their responsibilities, even as they spend full days working the phones to help hospitals, business and other local leaders.

Anthony Brindisi speaks to supporters on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 6, at the Delta Hotel in Utica, N.Y. Brindisi, a Democratic Assemblyman, ran against Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney in the race for New York's 22nd Congressional District. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

“I do worry about the optics,” said Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), a freshman Democrat running for reelection in a Trump district. “People expect Congress to be working, and we absolutely are right now, but we also have to be voting and conducting hearings and oversight.”

Voting by proxy would be a “good first step,” Brindisi said, though he stressed that more needed to be done. “We need to adapt and conduct business like the rest of the world is right now.”

Some lawmakers, particularly institutional veterans, have argued that Congress is simply limited in what it can do under the extreme circumstances, acknowledging that the two bodies must return to their chambers to conduct business.

“I think the constitution clearly anticipates that members would be present,” Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters in a deserted Capitol this week.

Blunt said the Senate is looking at ways to hold remote hearings, but said Congress had already dismissed the idea of voting away from Washington in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks: "We've dealt with these issues and even more difficult scenarios than whether you should get on an airplane or not because you might catch a virus.”

“We’re working in a challenging environment,” added Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “It’d be preferable if we were not in this situation. Given the circumstances, we’re adapting as best we can.”

Some Democrats also worry they’ve been sidelined for one of the most consequential decisions of all — how and when to reopen the economy, a move that could rescue millions of constituents who are facing unemployment but also risk a resurgence of coronavirus infections if handled incorrectly.

“The president skipped over Congress’s role when he basically said, ‘I will compel states to reopen when I want them to,’” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who is leading a push among Democrats to reassert congressional authority over the critical decision. “To the extent there’s a federal role in reopening America, that role is to be defined by Congress.”

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) questions Congressional Budget Office Director Phillip Swagel as he testifies before the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the

Not all lawmakers agree that it is Congress’s role, saying the legislative branch can do little more than exert pressure on the administration from the sidelines of its battle with state executives and public health experts.

“Ultimately there are things the president can do that we cannot control,” House Democratic Caucus Vice-Chair Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) said. “But what we can control is our response, continuing to put American families first, continuing to stand with our governors.”

But Raskin — along with Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — have drafted a bill to issue a direct challenge to Trump's powers oversee a state-by-state process of allowing millions of people to slowly retreat from their homes and back into shops, schools and public transit, by instead putting it in the hands of Congress.

Raskin acknowledged, though, that neither the House nor Senate can take up that bill for a vote or even a debate until lawmakers are able to safely return to Washington.

“That is the challenge of the next few weeks,” Raskin said. “We’re not here. It is a real problem.”

Melanie Zanona contributed.

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