The House on Wednesday took another step toward establishing a select panel to oversee the coronavirus response as the Rules Committee voted along party lines to send to the floor a rule for consideration of a resolution to formally establish the panel.
The 7-4 vote came after Democratic leaders pivoted earlier in the day to take a proxy voting proposal off the Rules Committee’s agenda.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced April 2 her intent to create the select subcommittee, to be chaired by Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, but the full House must vote on a resolution to establish it. That will come Thursday.
The subcommittee would focus on oversight of funding approved by Congress for the coronavirus crisis and examining how and where it is spent. It would fall within the Oversight and Reform Committee's umbrella.
The Rules Committee traded its cramped, yet prime, real estate on the third floor of the Capitol building for one of the largest rooms in the Capitol Hill complex, 1100 Longworth. The cavernous Ways and Means hearing room is intended to give the Rules panel enough space to practice social distancing.
“I never aspired to be on the Ways and Means Committee, but I can see why they like this room,” said Texas Republican Michael C. Burgess.
Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts sported a New England Patriots face mask as he spoke in support of creating the subcommittee and welcomed Rep. Doris Matsui back to the Rules panel. The California Democrat, who served on Rules earlier in her career, was temporarily appointed to the committee until Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, who is hospitalized with serious pneumonia and a broken rib, is able to return to congressional duties.
McGovern also welcomed Attending Physician Brian P. Monahan and House Chaplain Father Patrick Conroy, who were seated in the audience. McGovern read out guidance for lawmakers and staff from Monahan, including instructions to wear a face covering, avoid congregating, stay six feet apart and not shake hands.
“I feel we’re especially protected here,” said McGovern about the attendance of both the congressional doctor and priest.
The evening’s debate centered around whether Congress and the federal government need another avenue of oversight for the coronavirus response. Democrats on the panel pushed for a unique body to keep tabs on the multiple rounds of funding made available for economic recovery and pandemic response. Republicans spoke in opposition to creating it, citing the roles of existing congressional committees and agency inspectors general.
“Congress has responded swiftly and provided over $2 trillion in emergency relief. We need to make sure that these tax dollars are being well spent,” McGovern said.
Ohio Republican Jim Jordan was the only lawmaker who attended the hearing as a witness. He detailed the layers of oversight that already exist for the coronavirus relief funds.
Jordan pointed to a congressional entity built into one of the relief bills that's intended to oversee the funds, questioning why that, plus other existing congressional and agency efforts, isn't enough.
“The first eight are gonna look out for the taxpayers," Jordan said of those existing threads of oversight. "The ninth is going to look out for the Democrats’ candidate for President, Joe Biden.”
He contended that the appointment of Clyburn, a key Biden supporter, was a political move by Pelosi.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, top Republican on Rules, bristled at the fact that Pelosi announced the select panel's creation weeks before the congressional body with the authority to actually stand it up considered it.
“Today the Rules Committee is effectively being asked to retroactively rubber stamp her action,” said Cole.
The select subcommittee will be empowered to examine all aspects of the federal response and to issue subpoenas.
Early Wednesday morning, the Rules Committee had announced it would meet later in the day for a hearing and markup on the proxy voting measure leaders anticipated would be on the floor Thursday.
But later that morning, Pelosi announced on a Democratic leadership call that after a conversation with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a bipartisan group of lawmakers will be tasked with reviewing remote voting by proxy and opening the House for business amid the ongoing public health crisis.
She said the House would instead vote on the select subcommittee resolution, which was released shortly before the rules markup started.