Even a global pandemic and economic crisis are not enough to shatter President Trump’s perception of the Democratic House as a den of haters and losers who care more about hurting him than helping the American public.
He was asked on Tuesday why he did not allow members from his coronavirus task force to testify in the House, Trump responded that the chamber is a “setup” full of “Trump haters.”
“They,” said Trump, “frankly, want our situation to be a failure, which means death.”
It was a remarkable overt political retaliation that not only undermined the official White House line – which individuals like Dr.Anthony Fauci were too busy battling the pandemic to spend hours in front of Congress – but also created a situation where only the president’s own party would be responsible for hearing his conduct. Indeed, shortly after Trump’s speech, the Republican-led Senate health panel announced that Fauci would testify there next week.
“It’s so political. I’ve never seen anything like it, ”said Representative Donna Shalala (D-FL), who is the Democratic House representative on the panel not yet functional to oversee expenses related to COVID-19. “I don’t remember anyone preventing us from testifying in one chamber of Congress against another… Not going to the People’s House is right – it’s stupid and it’s dangerous. “
The oversight of Congress has always been an irritant to the occupant of the White House. But rarely has a president ignored it so blatantly when the context has been so non-partisan and the stakes so high. Even before the emergence of COVID-19, Trump’s challenge to Congress had sparked legal battles that promised to rearrange the long-term balance of federal power. But his insistence on continuing to snub legislative power in the midst of a pandemic has sparked a whole new set of questions and frustrations.
“The fact that the President of the United States has ordered those responsible for the federal response to avoid appearing before Congress is shocking, irresponsible and will result in more loss of life,” said Representative David Cicillin (DR.I .). Democrats trying to understand the federal response to COVID-19, he said, are “limited to what the president says” and what mid-level officials in the administration “tell us during a conference call “.
Privately, Democrats have complained that the party should have anticipated this situation. Just a few months ago, the administration avoided subpoenas and requests for documents as part of the impeachment investigation. With these issues still in court, leadership – the argument goes – should have demanded stronger oversight structures in place before billions of dollars were spent supporting an imploded economy.
“[House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi has left Democrats largely invisible in negotiating legislative responses to COVID-19 and stepped aside at a time that calls for congressional oversight, ”said Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, a public interest group. “A raging House could also ensure that Trump’s systemic errors are understood and beyond dispute to the 70% of Americans who are not willfully brainwashed by Fox News. Such public education is necessary to ensure that the federal government is never again so ill-prepared for a mass tragedy. “
These criticisms have been amplified as it has become clearer that existing oversight mechanisms have either been undermined, sidelined or largely neglected.
There has been, for example, no creation of a centralized database to show who has received so-called Paycheck Protection Program loans intended to help small businesses but also found the way to charming hotels and listed restaurant chains. A Democratic aide said the presumption was that the Small Business Administration would release this information under the provisions of the applicable law. But, conceded the assistant, “they are not”.
The congressional panel tasked with tracking the trillions of dollars on loan from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department was cleared six weeks ago. But it still lacks a chair, and appointed members can’t hire staff, making it fundamentally non-functional.
Meanwhile, the the president sidelined or sacked independent Inspectors General who have exposed or were able to reveal damning information about the administration’s COVID-19 response, while telling Congress it has the power to decide what lawmakers learn about the response pandemic, and not a special IG assigned to the task.
And, while administration officials involved in the COVID-19 response appeared before lawmakers in the early stages of the pandemic, they have since remained silent. None have testified since March 12, when there were less than 1,000 cases of the virus in the United States, and House Democrats told the Daily Beast that direct engagement with senior officials was inconsistent.
On April 15, for example, the cold e-mail administration a handful of Democratic lawmakers informing them that they had been selected from a congressional task force to advise Trump on reopening the economy. After an initial conference call the next day, no follow-up was scheduled until this week, when House members of the group were told there would be a second call with Trump’s top economic advisers Larry Kudlow and Kevin Hassett, Thursday. In the meantime, administration officials have asked lawmakers to contact them with their three “best ideas” on economic answers – “like homework,” an aide recalled.
In the absence of the traditional lines of surveillance and cooperation, there has been improvisation.
Bharat Ramamurti, appointed by Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer to the new Congress panel, said he relied on friends and associates with expertise in his areas of expertise. And while he continues to encounter absurdly mundane obstacles (his computer ran out of batteries on Tuesday because the electricity in his neighborhood was down and he couldn’t venture elsewhere), he hoped the commission would soon have a chair and receive his report by May 9th.
“The other peculiarity of the supervisory board is that all members are appointed by Congress,” Ramamurti told the Daily Beast. “Our committee is the only one safe from tampering with the president, which is why it is really important to put the president in place as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, external groups are attempting to reverse engineer the monitoring starting at the largest set of data points and working their way up to administration. Accountable.US, a non-partisan watchdog group, has filed nearly 200 public record requests and scoured hundreds of federal records to see if any publicly traded companies have secured P3 loans.
This still leaves gaping holes. And on those fronts, Democrats are scrambling to make matters right, with a group of lawmakers introducing legislation requiring disclosure of PPP loans and others calling for subpoenaing witnesses.
“They’re going to stonewall as much as they can,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) told The Daily Beast. “We cannot fold. We have to use the tools at our disposal. We may have to issue subpoenas and try all we can to get the information we need. “
Some Democrats argue that the party’s most effective mechanism for forcing the Trump administration to comply with congressional oversight would be the wallet. But few believe Pelosi will, or even could, effectively deploy such harsh tactics if the country’s economic situation remains dire. And so, the last hope is for public pressure to become so pervasive that members of the Trump administration will consider it in their political best interest to comply.
Already one member, former BARDA program director Dr Richard Bright, has agreed to testify before a House Democratic committee about a whistleblower complaint he filed detailing the missteps and systematic errors in judgment the administration made at the start of the pandemic. And it wouldn’t be unprecedented for the White House to eventually fall back on others.
In 2013, the Obama White House refused to make available for testimony personalities involved in the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that their time fixing the website was too valuable to be spent on the Hill. Under threat of a subpoena, Senior Technology Officer Todd Park ultimately agreed to testify before the GOP-led House Oversight Committee.
Two professors, Mark J. Rozell of George Mason University and Mitchel A. Sollenberger of the University of Michigan at Dearborn, hailed the move at the time as a worthy easing of tensions between the two branches. Joined by The Daily Beast, both said similar Trump action would now be warranted.
“That’s why you have a hierarchical organization,” Sollenberger told The Daily Beast. “They are there to express organizational needs, to respond to Congress when it comes to organizational issues, the questions Congress has. This is how government works.