When it comes to the federal government's coronavirus response, there is much room for self-criticism. But that won't come from the House's new select oversight committee, announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.), the purpose of which is to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse in the country's handling of COVID-19.
"We're not going to be looking back," says House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D–S.C.), telling CNN's Jake Tapper that the committee will instead focus on things like "price gouging" and "profiteering."
Clyburn offered an anecdote: "The governor of New York recently said that masks that he was spending 70 cents for, he's now having to spend 7 dollars for," he explained. "Is that past price gouging? I think it is. And that's what this committee is all about."
In other words, if Clyburn's description is to be taken at face value, lawmakers will scapegoat private businesses, as opposed to delving into the list of ways the government has failed the American public.
That list is a long one.
Consider the hurdles created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for one, which set onerous roadblocks to speedily addressing the crisis. It stood in the way of importing face masks, a critical need against mounting personal protective equipment shortages. It dramatically slowed private testing, which, as a result, is still widely unavailable for many who think they might have COVID-19. It even got in the way of the production of hand sanitizer, another item that's been in short supply as consumers seek to follow hand hygiene guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All this malfeasance could be useful for an oversight committee to examine.
Clyburn has said that the House will similarly avoid probing President Donald Trump, who has been criticized by both sides of the aisle for his initial response to the virus. Though the president spent several weeks downplaying COVID-19, turning down meetings with experts on the matter, and pushing false statistics, any Democrat-led investigation would almost certainly be viewed as a politically-motivated sham that would change few hearts and minds.
Still, neglecting to do even the slightest postmortem on pivotal decisions made by the federal government is imprudent, especially considering the committee will instead scrutinize decisions made by private businesses. "This is about focusing on how the money is spent, whether or not the people who are getting the money are actually working on behalf of the American people, or whether they are profiteering," said Clyburn.
The South Carolina representative said the House will probe businesses receiving government aid and will punish those that set high prices on essential goods, though he didn't say how this would work in practice.
In any case, laws against price gouging, which are meant to keep costs low during an emergency, do more harm than good. High prices work as market indicators, and without that, a privileged few get to hoard all the supplies, leaving the rest of us with nothing. But never mind the bad economics. Deeply troubling here is that the federal government and its red tape prevented the public from recovering from critical shortages, or, even worse, from developing the means to beat back this virus in the first place. Most troubling is that they're passing the buck to the victims.