Congress eyes a 9/11-like commission on coronavirus response

(Evan Vucci | AP photo) Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump listen as people share their stories of recovering from COVID-19, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Washington.

Washington • Support is growing for the federal government to establish a commission to investigate the shortfalls and mistakes in the response to the coronavirus outbreak and to help prepare for the next pandemic, though some allies of President Donald Trump worry the effort is aimed only at casting blame at the White House.

Several members of Congress have introduced legislation to create a bipartisan panel, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, that looked at multiple failures by U.S. officials in preventing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The various proposals, mostly pitched by Democrats, would charge a commission to review actions, and inaction, by the government in the lead-up to the outbreak that has now killed more than 26,000 Americans.

“We need to look back and learn from this,” said Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah. “And I think we need to be prepared for the next time this happens, and the only way you can do that is a real thorough analysis of our response, what we did well and what we could have done better.”

Multiple reports have detailed how the Trump administration, and the president himself, ignored or downplayed warnings about the novel coronavirus that is believed to have emerged in China in December and is now wreaking havoc across the globe.

While other countries have faced thousands of deaths — there are 125,000 worldwide — the United States is now the epicenter of the outbreak and still faces a lack of medical equipment and testing capacity.

Congress has poured more than $2 trillion into trying to keep the economy from sliding into a recession and unemployment rates have spiked higher than those faced during the start of the Great Depression.

The 9/11 Commission spent almost two years digging through millions of records and interviewing thousands of people to look into the problems plaguing the nation’s intelligence community and law enforcement actions ahead of the terrorist attacks. It made several recommendations, many of which became law intended to thwart future attacks.

Congress could do the same with the ongoing pandemic.

“What we need now is a bipartisan effort to learn how we make our country stronger and more resilient before the next public health crisis,” said Rep. Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat who spent eight days in the hospital after contracting COVID-19. “The purpose of any commission should not be to point fingers or assign blame but to evaluate what occurred, what was our level of preparedness, and what we do next — public and private sectors — to prevent, prepare for, respond to and mitigate the harm from future pandemics.”

McAdams points to one proposal for a bipartisan commission that starts in January 2021, months after the presidential election is over.

Curtis says it would be a “tremendous mistake” not to review the government’s response, especially if it could help halt the spread of a new virus the next time around. But he warns that the commission should not be set up just to find fault with Trump.

“I don’t think we should do this look back from a ‘we’re going to blame people’ perspective,” Curtis said. “I think we should do it from a ‘how do we do better next time and work what we can learn’” approach.

Some of Curtis’ fellow Republicans, though, who see efforts by some Democrats, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to launch a new commission as purely an anti-Trump venture.

It’s so transparently political,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told Politico. “This is just a committee to harass the president when he’s in the middle of dealing with a national crisis.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has endorsed the idea of a commission, though she says it also needs to be bipartisan and focused on solutions rather than blame.

“It has to be bipartisan,” the California Democrat said recently, according to Politico. “And, again, anything that affects this many people in our country, their health and affects our economy in such a major way, involves the allocation of so many trillions of dollars, we really do have to subject to an after-action review, not to point fingers but to make sure that it doesn’t happen again in the manner in which it happened, hopefully not at all.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, says he supports a commission to probe the government's handling of the coronavirus but that it shouldn't happen until the outbreak is under control.

“Right now, our immediate focus should remain on getting relief to those in need and stopping the spread of the disease,” Romney said in a statement. “When the emergency has passed, Congress and the administration will need to conduct thorough after-action reviews on the government’s handling of this crisis and how we can better prepare for future health threats.”