In fact, the parties started the day miles apart and ended it even further away. The first meeting of the new panel tasked with probing the government’s coronavirus response won’t be remembered for unearthing groundbreaking new policy information — and might not be remembered at all. But it was a visual distillation of the increasing dysfunction that has gripped Congress amid the coronavirus response and threatens to undermine oversight efforts going forward.
For starters, Democrats beamed into the briefing from their living rooms while most of the Republicans gathered in the Capitol and lambasted Democrats for refusing to convene in Washington. At Scalise’s first chance to speak, he turned his camera around and panned the hearing room, which he said was a spacious venue where lawmakers, staff, the public and press could safely social-distance while appearing in person.
“With just 12 members, we can achieve model social distancing,” Scalise said, as the camera showed three staffers gathered closely together at the rear of the room, and GOP lawmakers disregarding the attending physician’s request that they wear masks. He added, “A virtual briefing unnecessarily send the wrong message. Congress should be leading the way. We should not be the last to come back.”
Republicans also slammed Democrats for hastily convening the briefing — which featured five expert witnesses, including former FDA Commissioners Scott Gottlieb and Mark McClellan — and declining to offer Republicans a chance to choose their own witness.
But the stark divide between the parties extended to the substance of the briefing as well. Democrats — echoing the predictions of public health experts — described a crisis that could linger for another year until a vaccine is developed. They worried about shortages of medical equipment, coronavirus tests and the prospect of renewed outbreaks that could erupt if the country reopens too quickly. They also repeatedly laid the crisis at the feet of a slow-going federal response that has at times left states to fend for themselves.
“We’ve lost 82,000 Americans to coronavirus in less than three months, 21 million Americans thrown out of work, more than 1.3 million infections,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “I can understand our colleagues’ desperate efforts to distract form the crisis and to talk about almost anything else and to plunge us into partisan conflict.”
Republicans, meanwhile, emphasized the skyrocketing unemployment rate and suggested the ills of mass unemployment could outweigh the efforts to guard against the virus through stay-at-home orders.
“The key to all of this is perspective,” said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.), describing suicides and postponed health procedures as a grave threat. “I don’t minimize [coronavirus] risk at all. It’s there. The problem is, the rest of society has certainly got a health problem as well.”
Conservative Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) slammed one of the witnesses, Harvard University Global Health Institute Director Ashish Jha, as a partisan for suggesting that federal failures to ensure enough testing were the reason for the nationwide economic lockdown.
Jha retorted: “Every expert on the left, right, and center agrees that we had to shut our economy down because the outbreak got too big. The outbreak got too big because we didn’t have a testing infrastructure that allowed us to put our arms around the outbreak. And so testing was the fundamental failure that forced our country to shut down.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed the House to establish the coronavirus select committee last month, amid slow-going efforts to police the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus response. She tapped Clyburn, the Democratic caucus’ third-ranking member, to lead it and dismissed Republican claims that it would be used as a bludgeon against Trump in the heat of his 2020 reelection campaign.