New congressional panel to police COVID-19 relief spending

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media at the Capitol Building September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry today after allegations that President Donald Trump sought to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate leading Democratic presidential contender, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, which was the subject of a reported whistle-blower complaint that the Trump administration has withheld from Congress.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced plans Thursday to form a new committee charged with overseeing the more than $2 trillion the federal government is spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis will consist of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, Pelosi said, and will be chaired by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). 

“We face a deadly virus and a battered economy with millions of Americans suddenly out of work,” Pelosi said in a letter to her colleagues. “Congress has taken an important step in meeting this crisis by passing three bills with over $2 trillion dollars in emergency relief. We need to ensure those tax dollars are spent carefully and effectively.”

Pelosi pointed to the work of an oversight committee led by-then Sen. Harry Truman (D-Mo.) in March 1941, during World War II. The United States hadn’t yet entered the war, but Congress had appropriated billions of dollars to build up the nation’s defenses. 

“I knew that after the First World War there’d been a hundred and sixteen investigating committees after the fact, and I felt that one committee before the fact would prevent a lot of waste and maybe even save some lives, and that’s the way it worked out,” Pelosi quoted Truman saying. 

“The Truman Committee turned into a tremendous investment for taxpayers,” she said. “Its total cost was less than $1 million dollars and it saved lives and nearly $15 billion by preventing fraud, waste and abuse.”

Truman led the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (also known as the Truman Committee) from 1941 until 1944, when he was nominated to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running-mate. Truman was followed by three other chairmen: Sens. James Mead (D-N.Y.); Harley Kilgore (D-W.Va.) and Ralph Brewster (R-Maine). The committee was in operation until 1948. A Wisconsin senator, Republican Joseph McCarthy, served on the panel.

The Senate committee’s first investigation looked at the construction of troop quarters, according to the Senate Historical Office

The committee found “cost-overruns to be the norm, rather than the exception,” the historical office said. 

For example, in Indiantown Gap, Pa., the total construction cost was more than 10 times the original estimate of $125,000. 

At Florida’s Camp Blanding, the contractor doubled profits by violating the terms of its agreement. 

And the construction of a fort in Missouri required that 17 miles of railroad be constructed to take materials to the site, but the committee found that the railroad wasn’t completed in time to aid in the camp’s construction. 

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The $2 trillion relief package enacted last week to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic would install an inspector general to police federal spending. The package also set up a new committee to oversee the stimulus program. Democrats hailed those measures as critical steps toward ensuring proper oversight. 

But Trump issued a statement after signing the bill saying he had the power to decide what information the inspector general could share with Congress, and he challenged the constitutionality of language requiring consultation with Congress about staffing the new oversight committee, The New York Times reported

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Thursday that he opposed the formation of a new House committee because Congress already included oversight provisions in the latest massive spending package, NBC News reported. He warned that Clyburn would try to use the committee to restructure the U.S. government and economy.

“We are a co-equal branch of government,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) “It is important that we’re making sure the law as we wrote it is implemented as we intended. And in one case, the President said he was going to ignore part of the law around some of the oversight for the half a trillion dollars that went to some of the largest corporations. And that’s unacceptable. That’s not the way we wrote it.”

“We’re not a monarchy,” Pocan added. “We are a democracy and because of that, we want to make sure that we’re being heard because we are at the closest level to the people.”

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.