On April 2, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans to form a House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Speaker Pelosi compared the Committee to then Senator Harry Truman’s Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (now the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations). At the beginning of World War II, billions of dollars immediately went to funding the war effort. Senator Truman created the committee to oversee government spending and “making sure the money did what it was supposed to do.” In its work, the committee “saved lives and nearly $15 billion by preventing fraud, waste and abuse.” Speaker Pelosi sees the current circumstances relating to the coronavirus as similar to those that then-Senator Truman faced, with a $2 trillion stimulus bill passing Congress.
Speaker Pelosi envisioned the Select Committee “to ensure that the over $2 trillion that Congress has dedicated to this battle- and any additional funds Congress provides in future legislation- are spent wisely and effectively.” Speaker Pelosi named Majority Whip Jim Clyburn as chair and ensured the committee “will be bipartisan and have an expert staff.” To fulfill its mandate, “the committee will be empowered to examine all aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being wisely and effectively spent to save lives, deliver relief and benefit our economy.”
When compared to the Congressional Oversight Commission, there appears to be a large amount of overlap. Both entities are empowered to oversee the government’s current and future actions in implementing coronavirus relief measures, and neither is authorized to look at past actions of the administration in early stages of addressing the coronavirus outbreak.
What makes the Select Committee different is the control that Speaker Pelosi has over its actions. According to Politico, “the committee is Pelosi’s most aggressive effort yet to streamline the House’s efforts to hold President Donald Trump accountable for his implementation of the massive coronavirus response law, as well as to ensure that recipients of the historic taxpayer bailout use funds the way Congress intended.” Several Committees wanted “pieces of the sprawling investigations that are expected to unfold,” so “the appointment of a select committee may help corral that energy and keep other committees focused on their day-to-day work.” The Select Committee may help to make the investigations more efficient, “it will also ensure Pelosi has a tight grip on oversight decisions related to coronavirus, since the Democrats on the panel will be entirely members of her choosing.” While it is unusual for members of leadership to serve as chairs of committees, “Speaker Pelosi has signaled the profile she expects the committee’s work to have by” by her decision.
A major criticism of the Select Committee is the potential for duplicative government entities. Legislators, such as Minority Leader McCarthy, believe that “the House already has multiple committees with jurisdiction over the issue.” Leader McCarthy also “pointed out that lawmakers also tucked several oversight mechanisms into the rescue package.” Republican Representative Greg Walden “echoed a similar sentiment, calling the select committee a ‘mistake,’ ‘costly,’ and ‘duplicative.’” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin added similar criticism of the move, saying that he did not believe the committee was necessary and that the administration was providing full transparency.
Secretary Mnuchin’s claims to the contrary, in his signing statement, President Trump objected to two of the three CARES Act oversight measures. The criticism ‑‑ and claims that such oversight is unconstitutional ‑‑ may have contributed to the Speaker’s decision to create an ad hoc committee independent of executive influence. In response, President Trump remarked “Here we go again…witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt.”
The House officially voted on April 23d along party lines to establish the new investigative committee as a 12-member subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee. Speaker Pelosi will name seven members and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will name five. The new subcommittee will begin with a $2 million budget, and the chair will be authorized to issue subpoenas or take depositions. The committee’s official charge will be to examine the use of taxpayer funds to address the coronavirus pandemic, potential waste or mismanagement, the effectiveness of new laws meant to address the pandemic, federal preparedness, the economic impact of the crisis, socioeconomic disparities in the impact of the crisis, the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis, the ability of whistleblowers to report waste or abuse and the Trump administration’s cooperativeness with Congress and other oversight entities.
When looking to the future, “some House Democrats have also called for a panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission to do a comprehensive review of the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States and whether government failures contributed to the crisis. .” While the new Select Committee will not have the authority to review what happened in the run-up to the outbreak, Speaker Pelosi says “such a commission might be established later.”