Congress is out of session and out of town until late April, even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to exact a mounting death toll and inflict significant economic damage on the public. Federal lawmakers are already considering another round of legislative relief when they return, perhaps by filling the many voids in their last attempt. Some are also considering a more farsighted proposal: establishing a 9/11-style commission to study America’s response to the outbreak and determine exactly what went so calamitously wrong.
At least four proposals are currently circulating among House members on Capitol Hill—metaphorically, at least, since the actual building is largely desolate. They range from a bill by California’s Adam Schiff, a Democrat, that would essentially replicate the 9/11 Commission’s structure and powers, to a proposal by Illinois’s Rodney Davis, a Republican, that would not allow the commission to issue subpoenas for documents and testimony. Bipartisan teams of lawmakers have floated other versions that fall somewhere in the middle.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi also said last week she would support establishing a select committee to focus on the pandemic helmed by South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn. That committee, however, would be more forward-looking than a commission. “We’re not going to be looking back on what the president may or may not have done back before this crisis hit,” he said in a CNN interview on Sunday. “The crisis is with us.” At the same time, Pelosi indicated that she would prefer that any proposed commission pass with bipartisan support.
Last month, I suggested three subjects of inquiry for any future commission to study: why the United States failed so badly on coronavirus testing in January, February, and March; why the U.S. public health system wasn’t better prepared for the pandemic’s arrival; and whether Congress took the right steps to alleviate the social and economic fallout that the pandemic itself—and efforts to contain it—would have on the nation. Since then, a few additional issues have arisen where a commission’s scrutiny and judgment would be welcomed. Such a body should be armed with all of the same powers and privileges held by the 9/11 Commission—and nothing less.
In recent weeks, news outlets have shed more light on the original three topics. A series of leadership and institutional failures at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration prevented the rollout of nationwide testing for months, thereby missing a crucial window of opportunity to stem the virus’s spread in its early days. The Department of Health and Human Services under Secretary Alexander Azar, along with the White House’s middle and upper ranks, struggled to overcome bureaucratic hurdles to coordinate the federal response. Trump himself first received intelligence briefings on the dangers of the virus in January but publicly and privately downplayed them for months out of political self-interest.
A report released on Monday by HHS’s inspector general cataloged the effects of those failures. In interviews with hospital officials across the country, the report described systemic breakdowns in the nation’s pandemic response across the board. Testing delays, sometimes as long as seven days, drained hospital resources and wasted valuable time. Shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, risked exposing health care workers and other patients to the virus, depriving hospitals of manpower while exacerbating the crisis. The effect of these and other stresses on the mental health of medical practitioners, as a result, was significant in documentable ways. “Health care workers feel like they’re at war right now,” one hospital official told the inspector general. “[They] are seeing people in their thirties, forties, fifties dying.… This takes a large emotional toll.”
These shortfalls raise questions about the wisdom of relying upon a vast global supply chain for basic medical supplies and complex equipment alike. Many of the U.S. companies that sell N95 masks manufacture them in China, where export controls are blocking products from reaching the U.S. (The U.S., for its part, has drawn international criticism for its law-of-the-jungle approach to procuring PPE supplies overseas.) Vox’s Lois Parshley noted that the national supply of sedatives and other drugs is also vulnerable to disruption from overseas: An estimated 80 percent of some drugs’ active ingredients, for example, come from China and India.
But it’s the ventilator gap that’s drawn the most attention from state and local officials, and for good reason. Just over 13,000 of the devices—not nearly enough for a nationwide pandemic—are reportedly available in the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal reserve of medical equipment and materiel for use in these kinds of emergencies. A 13-year effort by the federal government to buy a cheap, robust supply of the respiratory machines has yet to produce a single ventilator, all thanks to private-sector disruptions and a lack of government energy. The existing arsenal also appears to be poorly maintained. Some states have reported receiving supplies from the stockpile that didn’t work: rotting masks, broken ventilators, and more.
The White House’s reluctance to use the Defense Production Act also demands rigorous scrutiny. The Korean War–era law allows the president to commandeer national industries to produce vital goods during an emergency. Trump, framing it as a last-resort measure, resisted invoking the act in full by noting that companies had already taken voluntary steps to accelerate production. The New York Times found last week that not only is the law actually used more often than a college dorm’s microwave—some 300,000 times a year by the Pentagon alone, apparently—but that it’s also mainly invoked to grease the skids at defense and security contractors. That raises questions about whether the law should be revised to better fit modern demands and challenges.
In addition, there are many unresolved questions about how these resources—mask, ventilators, drugs, and so on—are actually allocated when they’re obtained. Governors across the country have complained that the lack of federal coordination means they’re all essentially bidding against each other, against hospitals, and even against foreign countries in a race to obtain necessary supplies. The administration’s efforts seem like an intentional attempt to avoid blame for shortfalls, telling the states that they should work harder to obtain what they need. After Surgeon General Jerome Adams compared the crisis to World War II mobilization and told the states to “be Rosie the Riveter,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee quipped, “Can you imagine if Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, ‘We’ll be right behind you, Connecticut. Good luck building those battleships?’”
To make matters worse, there is a strong reason to fear intentional mismanagement of federal resources by Trump and his associates. The Washington Post reported last week that some Republican-led states have received more than they asked for from the national stockpile, while some Democratic-led states complained that what they got fell far short of their requests. “The president knows Florida is so important for his reelection, so when DeSantis says that, it means a lot,” an unnamed White House aide told the Post. “He pays close attention to what Florida wants.” Trump himself fueled concerns by telling reporters that he wanted governors to be “appreciative” of his efforts, then using boilerplate praise from Democratic governors in campaign ads.
Finally, more scrutiny is needed into the role that Jared Kushner and his coterie of private-sector allies have played in decision-making processes throughout the crisis. Kushner is unique among White House aides in that he is also a member of the president’s family. That, in turn, gives him an unusual degree of latitude and deference from civil servants who feel they can’t brush him off. If Kushner’s contributions appeared to be positive, this would not be an urgent issue. But his web of private dealings, including some that appeared to undercut the national effort or favor Trump’s allies, deserve close attention from any commission that studies the national response.
None of this should be controversial. Unfortunately, any inquiry into the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis will likely face stiff resistance from Republicans. Last week, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise accused Democrats who had proposed oversight measures of “finding any excuse to continue their harassment of President Trump,” while House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also struck a dismissive note. Their resistance may make it impossible to find the bipartisan support for the commission that Pelosi wants. But it doesn’t negate the urgency of a robust effort to document exactly what went wrong so it can’t happen again.