The House plans to vote on Thursday to set up a powerful new committee with subpoena power that will have broad oversight and investigative authority to probe the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had initially signaled that the committee would focus its oversight on the historic trillions of dollars in spending that Congress has approved to address the pandemic. But the text of the resolution to establish the committee – released by House Democrats on Wednesday evening – shows that it would have far-reaching power to investigate how money is being spent as well as to examine US preparedness for the crisis, including deliberations within the Trump administration.
Pelosi abruptly made the decision Wednesday morning to move forward with the vote after she decided to postpone a vote on an unprecedented change in the House rules to let members vote remotely, saying the matter needed to be reviewed further.
Pelosi announced that the committee would be created earlier this month, but the panel, which will be chaired by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, needs to be approved by the full House to get up and running. Republicans have pushed back on the committee, claiming that it is redundant and warning that it may be a partisan effort.
The decision to vote Thursday to formally establish the committee marks a shift in plans after lawmakers were initially not expected to hold the vote on Thursday and were instead expected to vote on a new rule to allow members to vote remotely during the pandemic.
Pelosi said on a call with Democrats on Wednesday that the chamber will vote to establish the coronavirus select committee tomorrow and won’t vote on a rule change to allow remote voting, a source on a call told CNN.
Pelosi said on the call that after speaking with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy they are tasking a bipartisan group of House lawmakers to review remote voting, a Democratic leadership aide said. The House will not consider proxy voting this week, the source added.
The change comes as a growing number of Republicans say it’s time to reopen the Capitol for businesses, even as Democratic leaders worry that doing so could put their members at risk.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers include McCarthy, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Reps. Jim McGovern, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Tom Cole, the ranking Republican member on the Rules Committee, Zoe Lofgren, the chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, and Rodney Davis, the ranking Republican on the Administration Committee.
How Democrats plan to structure the committee
The committee will consist of seven Democrats and five Republicans, according to the text of the resolution put out by House Democrats on Wednesday. It will technically be created as a special investigatory subcommittee on the Oversight Committee.
The committee will mount a “full and complete investigation” to probe the “efficiency, effectiveness, equity and transparency” of taxpayer funds used to respond to the crisis. It will issue reports on waste, fraud and abuse of funds being spent – the economic impact and the disparate impacts the crisis has caused on communities.
While Pelosi suggested previously that this committee would not focus on Trump’s initial response to the crisis, the resolution says the committee will probe the “preparedness for and response to the coronavirus crisis,” including the “planning for and implementation of testing, containment and mitigation,” distribution of medical supplies, protective equipment and development of vaccines.
It also says the committee can look at “executive branch policies, deliberations, decisions, activities, internal and external communications related to the coronavirus crisis. “
In addition, it can look at “any other issues” related to the coronavirus crisis.
Republican pushback to the committee
McCarthy voiced skepticism about the new committee on Wednesday, saying that he is concerned it will be “political” and does not expect much Republican support for it.
“The speaker tried to commit to me that this would be a bipartisan committee. I told her I don’t view it that way. I view it more as a political one,” McCarthy said during a news conference.
“I don’t see a lot of members voting for it on our side. And I told her I would wait before I would appoint anybody to it, to see who she appoints to this, (and if) she is serious about making this a committee that works.”
The vote to formally stand up the new committee will take place on the same day that the House is expected to approve a new $484 billion coronavirus relief package to help small businesses and hospitals and expand Covid-19 testing. The measure passed the Senate by voice vote on Tuesday.
That legislative package amounts to the latest unprecedented effort by Washington to prop up the economy, and it comes on the heels of a massive $2 trillion rescue package along with a $192 billion relief measure and another $8.3 billion plan that Congress has approved to address the devastation of the pandemic.
As Congress has enacted far-reaching and sweeping relief measures, lawmakers have also raised concerns over accountability and transparency of how they will be enacted and have called for oversight of the implementation of the legislation.
Pelosi said earlier this month that the new coronavirus oversight committee, which she has referred to as the House Select Committee on the coronavirus crisis, will “have an expert staff and the committee will be empowered to examine all aspects of the federal response to coronavirus and to ensure that the taxpayers dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent to save lives, deliver relief, and benefit our economy.”
In a letter to House Democrats explaining the decision to create the committee, Pelosi wrote, “Its purpose is 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.”
But it won’t be the only watchdog exercising oversight of the coronavirus response.
The $2.2 trillion stimulus package, the largest in history signed into law last month, created several overlapping oversight entities to keep tabs on spending that would be doled out by the Trump administration.
The legislation established a new special inspector general for pandemic recovery appointed by the President, a new oversight body within the inspectors general community and an independent congressional panel appointed by House and Senate leaders. The law also gave $20 million to the nonpartisan congressional watchdog, the Government Accountability Office.
That’s part of the reason why some Republicans have objected to Pelosi’s move to establish a new committee.
McCarthy argued earlier this month that such a committee would be “redundant” because existing House committees are able to exercise oversight, and there are other oversight provisions in the coronavirus legislation that has been passed.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.