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Public health officials agree: coronavirus’ spread is no longer a matter of if but when. The only question now is, how bad is it going to get? The answer will rest on the efficacy of the government’s response, its ability to get resources where they need to be, keep the public informed and react quickly to new developments. The bad news? We have a president whose team is uniquely ill-suited to lead this process. The good news, however, is the government is larger than the executive.
Congress has the power to profoundly shape the coronavirus response, not only by loosening its purse strings, but by conducting stringent oversight that uncovers incompetence, elevates dissenting voices within the executive branch, publicizes essential information and lays the groundwork for future action. Since taking the majority, House Democrats have largely shied away from such an adversarial stance — other than their pursuit of an extremely narrow impeachment effort. But now, arguably more than ever, lives depend on it.
Trump’s response to coronavirus has been all wrong from the start. Times of crisis call for a few basic things; clear, accurate information, resources to respond and competent people to carry everything out. Each step of the way, Trump has delivered exactly the opposite. Right out of the gate Trump was lying about the severity of the problem, contradicting experts and laying the blame for missteps elsewhere. He has also put his administration’s response effort in the hands of political cronies who are wholly unqualified for the job and seemingly wholly uninterested in carrying it out.
With a team like that, is it any wonder that the U.S. is lagging severely behind other countries in its response? Healthcare providers are confused and ill-prepared, with little access to accurate up-to-date information. While other countries were rapidly testing patients by the tens of thousands, the U.S. has struggled to get an accurate test into the hands of state health organizations and providers. As a result, we still likely don’t know the scale of the problem.
To anyone who’s been paying attention these last few years, none of this should come as a surprise. Incompetence and contempt for the public interest are this administration’s two most fundamental, animating interests. Luckily, there’s at least one powerful institution that can resist these attacks: Congress. House Democrats are well positioned to conduct oversight that improves the federal government’s response to coronavirus in real time, and paves the way for improved crisis response in the future.
It will be up to Congress to determine how best to increase the federal government’s capacity to respond to the pandemic; as already established, this administration is not up to that task. Several committees have already begun holding hearings with experts and government officials to take stock of the situation. But there is still significant room to escalate these initial efforts.
First, lawmakers should routinely be requesting documents and testimony from administration officials. Already Trump and his associates have been caught in clumsy lies and obfuscations; how much information is being more successfully hidden? While this administration has not been cooperative in the face of other oversight efforts, it is better to ask than to assume non-cooperation. Furthermore, since crises scramble incentives, it’s plausible that Republican lawmakers could throw their support behind some investigative efforts.
Even if these requests don’t bear fruit, all is not lost. Lawmakers should be doing all that they can to invite whistleblowing. We’re still in the early days of the outbreak, and while we’ve heard a disturbing tale from one whistleblower, surely others are awaiting Congressional overtures.
Additionally, lawmakers should be calling state and local officials who are at the front lines of the response. This allows lawmakers to bypass the administration’s obstructionism, expose flaws in the federal government’s response (thus creating an incentive for Trump’s team to do better) and craft legislative responses.
But that’s not the only benefit of aggressive oversight. By closely watching this administration’s every move, lawmakers can increase the political costs of contemptuous or incompetent missteps. Trump has consistently demonstrated that he is obsessed with maintaining his reputation among select subsets of the population. A bungled pandemic response has the potential to reach even these normally impervious populations — Fox News’ audience is disproportionately elderly, i.e., vulnerable to COVID-19, and executives reading the Wall Street Journal track the economic implications of a public health fiasco. Lawmakers can increase the odds that the message gets through by keeping the administration’s missteps at the center of the national conversation.
Other benefits from this strategy are likely to accrue over time. Something is lost if we focus only on those mistakes that Trump is making in real-time. Trump’s administration has been preparing to botch this response since the day he took office. Budget cuts and unmasked hostility to civil servant expertise have left our government less resilient and far less capable. Those problems will not disappear overnight, and will certainly be lingering when the next president takes office, whether that be in eleven months or in five years.
Democrats who hope not only to see a co-partisan in the White House next year, but to actually see them succeed in office, must use their powers to ease the way. Through oversight, lawmakers can take stock of just how severely public health agencies’ capacities have been depleted. How many civil servants have left? What is the practical effect of that exodus? How can it best be reversed? Undertaking this work now will ensure that a more public interest-minded executive is better positioned to respond to unfolding public health crises, whether coronavirus or something else.
To refuse to conduct oversight in this moment, is to abdicate the responsibilities voters entrusted to these lawmakers. The job of Congress does not end when a piece of legislation is signed into law. Lawmakers are also tasked with the equally important job of seeing that those laws are duly carried out; in short, that the government functions as intended.
Some will likely demur for fear that they will be seen as “playing politics” in a time of crisis. But lawmakers cannot be afraid to do their jobs because they might also benefit from it. Good governance is not something to be ashamed of.
Time and time again, Democrats have failed to exploit Trump’s contempt for regular people. They have passed up nearly every opportunity to highlight the ways, big and small, that he is making life worse for everyone but a small, wealthy elite.
Over a year after they took the House, it’s hard not to wonder: what has the average person gained from the Democratic House, other than a bulwark against further attacks on their health care? Now, amidst crisis, House Democrats have an opportunity (perhaps their final one) to prove their worth. Will they seize it?
Eleanor Eagan is a Research Assistant at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.