The last time that key members of the coronavirus task force testified on Capitol Hill, the epicenter of the disease was in Washington state, the N.B.A. had shocked the world by calling off the rest of its season, and President Trump had yet to address the nation about the emerging threat.
On that day, March 12, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other members of the coronavirus task force appeared before lawmakers. The number of confirmed cases and deaths in the U.S. was 1,267 and 38, respectively. When they take their oaths again on Tuesday morning, over 1.3 million Americans will have been sickened with the coronavirus and over 79,000 will have died.
To say that this meeting of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—and a Thursday House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing featuring the first COVID-19 whistleblower—are highly anticipated doesn’t do justice to the desire from lawmakers, and the public, to hear directly from the officials who have overseen the response to the pandemic over the last two months. Hill aides are expecting wall-to-wall TV and online media coverage and sound bites from officials that will drive days of news coverage.
Meeting, of course, is a relative term in these times. Tuesday’s Senate HELP hearing will be conducted virtually, because witnesses Fauci, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Steven Hahn, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield are all self-quarantining due to exposure to COVID-19, as is the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The hearing is titled “Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.”
It’s Democrats who are most eager to take a crack at grilling members of the administration’s COVID-19 task force over their response to the virus, which they believe has been an unmitigated disaster. Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to focus more on upcoming steps to prepare in key areas like testing capability and vaccine development, with a clear eye toward Trump’s single-minded priority: reopening the U.S. economy.
Democratic aides say they generally want to be more forward-looking than backward-looking, with the idea being that they can coax out of the task force officials some benchmarks that they can hold Trump to in the coming months and possibly bludgeon him with.
But that’s not to say Democratic lawmakers will be holding their fire on what they view as the administration’s failures over the last two months. “President Trump has been more focused on fighting against the truth, than fighting this virus—and Americans have sadly paid the price,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate HELP Committee, will say in her opening remarks on Tuesday. While Murray intends to question witnesses over testing capability and vaccines, she will also ask about reports detailing that White House officials interfered or dismissed experts’ advice.
That very topic will be the focus of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Thursday hearing featuring Dr. Rick Bright, a government biomedical expert who says he was booted from the COVID-19 task force for raising concerns over unproven virus remedies pushed by the president’s team.
It’s all making for a banner week in COVID-19 oversight on Capitol Hill, which has seen very little of it during the crucial, two-month window in which the virus exploded across the U.S. “It’s a public education role that oversight has,” said Jeff Hauser, an executive branch watchdog at the Center for Economic and Policy Research think tank.
“People should understand, what does the government response look like when it’s a B+? How bad is it now?” he asked. “If you want to have an engaged citizenry that pushes for good governance, you need to understand what the executive branch looks like.”
Tuesday’s hearing in Senate HELP will be the public’s first in-depth glimpse into that from Capitol Hill in some time. Testifying in front of senators will be Fauci, Redfield, Hahn, and Rear Admiral Brett Giroir, the task force’s testing coordinator.
Both Republicans and Democrats say that for the country to pursue any economic reopening and stop the financial pain, testing capability needs to improve significantly and rapidly. When asked what the focus of Tuesday’s hearing would be, a senior Senate GOP aide repeated a refrain heard frequently from both parties in recent months: testing, testing, testing.
But the two sides are certain to diverge from that basic point of agreement. The congressional GOP, which has largely backed up Trump’s response to the coronavirus, will have to carefully navigate embracing the White House’s line—that the U.S. has pulled off a herculean feat of testing so far—with the reality that virtually no expert believes capability is where it needs to be in order to move toward reopening the country.
Alexander, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, straddled that line, calling the country’s testing of 8 million people “impressive” but acknowledging that businesses, schools, and other essential functions won’t begin to return to normal without a “breakthrough” on the testing front.
Democrats, meanwhile, view testing as perhaps Trump’s greatest COVID-19 vulnerability. The administration’s “blueprint” for national testing that was released in early May, for example, was light on specifics and largely shifted the burden for meeting testing benchmarks onto states.
They will pelt the Senate witnesses with questions on the topic. In addition to Murray, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) plans to ask them about the administration’s lack of a national testing strategy or a plan to implement contact tracing, a system that can quickly track an individual’s personal contacts in case they expose someone else or might have been exposed to the virus themselves.
There’s a belief among some Republicans that Democrats are eager for the chance to get Fauci—who is widely respected by the public and in the Democratic Party—to say something unflattering or negative about the president’s response, which he has not done so far during his time on the COVID-19 task force.
Notably, Fauci, Redfield, Hahn and others will not be appearing for testimony anytime soon in the chamber where Democrats control the proceedings. President Trump blocked Fauci, as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Medicare and Medicaid Administrator Seema Verma, from House testimony last week, publicly decrying the House as a “set-up” full of “Trump haters.”
In Bright, however, House Democrats have landed the first COVID-19 whistleblower to testify in front of Congress. Bright is the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a government agency that helps develop defenses against infectious disease and bioweapons. In a whistleblower complaint filed last week, Bright said that as early as January, he began raising red flags about the lack of personal protective equipment and the need to get moving on a COVID-19 vaccine.
Bright says his complaints fell on unreceptive ears, and alleges he was transferred off the COVID-19 task force—and away from BARDA—after raising concerns about hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that the president and his inner circle touted as a coronavirus remedy without much evidence.
On Thursday, Bright will appear before a subcommittee in the House Energy and Commerce Committee that is chaired by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Democrats view his appearance as key to establishing that Trump has failed to respond adequately to the virus and that his team has prioritized politics over science in its approach to the disease. In the Senate, Alexander has dismissed the idea Bright should testify before his panel.
Like the Senate HELP Committee, though, the House Energy and Commerce panel is a venue known more for bipartisan bonhomie than partisan warfare. A House Republican aide said there are several promising avenues for the parties to work together on that committee, and worried that hauling in Bright would damage the prospects for that work.
“I don’t know how they’ve settled on this being the first hearing,” the aide told The Daily Beast. “Is this all we’re going to do for the next two months—hit the administration on their response to the coronavirus, or are we going to try to get this stuff done?”