The fight against coronavirus is unlike any our nation has waged in modern history. But this is not the first time we have been tested in such a sudden and devastating fashion — and Congress should draw lessons from our past experience.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Imperial Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,000 Americans, crippling the Navy’s Pacific Fleet and drawing us into World War II. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, murdering nearly 3,000 civilians, injuring over 25,000, deepening the 2001 recession and forcing our nation to confront the global threat of terrorism.
Both were searing national traumas. Both demanded massive mobilization by the whole of American society.
And with both the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks, even as the nation acted to confront the threats to its security in the moment, the gravity and complexity of the attacks prompted after-action reviews. The leaders in those eras had the foresight to create independent commissions charged with conducting comprehensive investigations of what our government did right, what it did wrong and how it could better protect the country in the future.
Examine the past, plan for the future
As members of Congress, our immediate and highest priority is to take swift and decisive action to limit the spread of the virus, save lives and restart the economy. At the same time, we need to begin the process of creating an independent commission to take on the critical questions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
We have each proposed legislation to create an independent, bipartisan commission that would examine the outbreak and spread, the nation’s preparedness and our government’s collective response, and make recommendations for the future.
Although our proposals differ slightly, they are each based on the premise that the American people deserve to know the full truth about what happened. And only by an objective examination of the whole of government response to this pandemic can we hope to be prepared for the next. This is not an exercise in partisan score-settling or finger-pointing. Indeed, some of our Republican colleagues have called for a commission as well.
We strongly suspect that — if done right — a wide ranging, retrospective review will identify errors and missteps across administrations and at all levels of government. But the more important part of the commission’s work will be to turn those lessons learned into concrete recommendations for action, just as the 9/11 Commission did. Indeed the 9/11 Commission’s work was so successful, many attribute the country’s avoidance of another terrorist attack of that magnitude to the reforms the commission recommended and brought about.
Under each of our proposals, commissioners would be appointed on a bipartisan basis and with expertise in relevant fields like public health, epidemiology, disaster response, intelligence, the armed services and more. The commission would be provided adequate resources, staff and authority to gather evidence and hear testimony, both public and private, from those directly involved in our government’s response. The commission would be required to prepare a comprehensive report within a defined period of time for the president, Congress and the American people.
Complex questions that need answers
Based on the experience of the 9/11 Commission, we know that the Coronavirus Commission will need time to do the job right. Indeed, the complexity of this crisis may well exceed those examined by past commissions. And the commissioners will need to answer a wide range of questions that could grow as their work commences.
Why were critically important tests for the virus so hard to obtain for those exhibiting symptoms in the early phases? Why were desperately needed medical equipment, like ventilators and personal protective gear, in such short supply initially and later distributed in a seemingly haphazard fashion? Why did social distancing protocols and stay-at-home orders take so long to issue in certain jurisdictions? What did our health and intelligence agencies know at the time of the outbreak and as the virus continued to spread, both in China and beyond?
A Coronavirus Commission’s after-the-fact analysis is not a substitute for rigorous, contemporaneous, nonpartisan oversight by congressional committees and other independent entities of the federal government, like inspectors general. Congressional oversight will also be required to ensure that the trillions in relief dollars Congress has already approved are appropriately and efficiently distributed to the Americans and businesses that need them.
Yet a longer term and authoritative retrospective report will be vital. As of Saturday, over 38,000 Americans had already died — and even under the most optimistic estimates, many tens of thousands more may perish before the nation has brought the pandemic fully under control.
Further, we need to understand the contributing factors that could explain why so many of the victims are from communities of color and vulnerable communities, like nursing homes. We hope the commission will examine the deficiencies in our health care system that have caused such a disproportionate impact on these communities, even as we try to address this pernicious aspect of the health crisis in real time.
As Congress takes up additional legislation to supplement our response to the public health and economic crises facing the country in the weeks to come, we believe that Congress should — on a bipartisan basis — include a provision to establish a Coronavirus Commission. The commission’s work may have to wait, but Congress should put the framework in place now.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., is co-chair of the House Blue Dog Coalition.
The op-ed was first published by USA Today.