Congressional Republicans are floating sweeping investigations into the Biden administration’s COVID-19 spending and are looking to tighten the purse strings on agency funding should they hold majorities after next week’s midterms.
Republicans are frustrated with what they see as the administration’s unaccountable coronavirus spending and are looking to shine a spotlight onto where the trillions of dollars doled out by the White House has gone.
Polls show the House is more likely to flip than the Senate, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) is poised to take control of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has wide jurisdiction over issues like Medicare, Medicaid, food and drug safety and the federal health agencies.
McMorris Rodgers and other GOP lawmakers have said they want to prioritize an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, as well as the administration’s policies in response to the virus, like school closures.
“Overall, regarding the COVID response, the lockdowns, the decisions that were made in response to COVID, we want to look at the decisions that were made, what drove those decisions, and how we might want to approach that in the future,” McMorris Rodgers told Punchbowl News in a September interview.
A GOP aide said the committee is interested in holding the administration accountable for the grants from the American Rescue Plan as well as the Inflation Reduction Act. While a lot of the money was allocated, and lawmakers will want to track it, some of it has been set aside for later years.
House Republicans have long complained about how states and localities are spending COVID-19 relief funding for things that are not COVID-related, like pickleball courts and tourist attractions. They want to know what, if any, guidance the White House has provided.
The aide said the committee is also looking to bring in health officials like Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure.
Brooks-LaSure has never testified since her Senate confirmation, and GOP lawmakers want a chance to grill her, especially about Medicare’s new authority to negotiate drug prices.
But public health experts are concerned that the quest for accountability in spending could lead to less money for agencies that are historically cash-strapped.
“A lot of money went out in a one-time bucket. And we really need to have sustainable funding over time,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
“And so these budgets get cut in a way that impacts the long term ability to maintain the limited capacity they have right now. That capacity will erode, and then our ability to respond even to routine public health emergencies will be severely impacted in a negative way,” Benjamin said.
With Joe Biden in the White House holding veto power over any legislation aimed at tearing down his agenda, Republicans are aware they will have to tailor their agenda.
For instance, the GOP aide said committee lawmakers will be focused on lessening the impact of the drug pricing provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, rather than repealing it outright.
Still, having agency officials responding to constant inquiries from Congress can be an effective stalling tool.
“Aggressive oversight by Republicans will just eat up a lot of staff resources that could otherwise go to running the government and addressing public health,” said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Republicans in both chambers are also eager to launch investigations into Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is set to retire from government this year.
When Fauci announced his intention to retire in August, Republicans vowed to keep investigating.
“Retirement can’t shield Dr. Fauci from congressional oversight,” House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member James Comer (R-Ky.) said in a statement at the time. Comer would likely become the chair of the committee in a Republican majority.
In the Senate, one of Fauci’s most outspoken critics is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Paul is in line to become the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee if he wins reelection and if Republicans win the majority. The panel’s current ranking member, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), is retiring.
Republicans have not been shy about launching probes into the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, focusing on the origins of the virus and whether the federal government — and by extension, Fauci — helped fund controversial research that might have played a role in its creation.
“It’s not about Fauci going to jail, although that probably would be appropriate,” Paul said at a Nov. 1 campaign stop, according to the News Enterprise of Elizabethtown, KY. “It’s about finding the truth of the origins of the virus so this doesn’t happen again.”
While Republicans have been in the minority, those investigations have not gained much momentum. But with the majority, the GOP would have the authority to lob subpoenas at the administration to force it to hand over documents.
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“If we win in November, if I’m chairman of a committee, if I have subpoena power, we’ll go after every one of [Fauci’s] records,” Paul said earlier this year.
Paul, a libertarian ophthalmologist, has repeatedly antagonized the nation’s top infectious diseases doctor over the benefits of masks, vaccinations and the origins of COVID-19.
In March, Paul tried to attach to the pandemic relief bill a proposal eliminating Fauci’s job and dividing it into three positions.