Comity crumbles on Congress’ Covid committee

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Republicans on the committee grumble that Democrats remain fixated on former President Donald Trump, with no interest in holding other officials accountable, while Democrats charge the GOP with pushing conspiracy theories and elevating untrustworthy witnesses with axes to grind. After nearly a dozen contentious hearings and a series of clashes that have played out in public and behind the scenes, the old friends admit there is little-to-no chance of the committee unifying around findings or recommendations.

“Three million-plus individuals died, and we’re spending our time trying to push a partisan narrative that Dr. Fauci is guilty of wrongdoing,” an exasperated Ruiz told POLITICO. “How in the world will that help us prevent the next pandemic?”

Wenstrup stressed that he’s pleased with the committee’s work so far, favorably comparing it to “after-action reviews” the military holds after difficult missions. But he’s as frustrated as Ruiz with the growing partisan divide, pointing to the separate reports the majority and minority recently released on the origins of Covid to argue it’s the minority’s fault things have gotten “too political.”

“We don’t mention ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ at all — not one time in our report,” he said. “But their report mentions Republicans 34 times. Now, you can draw your own conclusions from that.”

The breakdown underscores the seeming impossibility of rallying around lessons from a pandemic that killed more than a million Americans and at least 2 million more abroad. Public health experts warn that if the two friends can’t even agree on what to investigate, much less how to go about it, Covid will be further politicized and the nation will be more vulnerable to future pandemics.

“Nobody knows what to believe now,” said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, who testified at the committee’s first roundtable in February. “When you have dueling reports, even when one is more correct than the other, it won’t result in meaningful policy changes. So what happens when there’s a new outbreak with higher mortality rates? We’re setting ourselves up for more dodging, delaying and poor decision-making in the future.”

‘This is nowhere near what I thought this was going to be’

Soon after Republicans won a narrow House majority in the midterms and Wenstrup was tapped to lead a new Covid-focused oversight committee, he texted Ruiz and urged him to apply for a spot on the panel. After mulling it over, Wenstrup sent a follow-up message encouraging him to seek the ranking member position.

The invitation did not come out of the blue.

The two have been close since they were freshmen in 2013 and worked together on the Veterans’ Affairs committee. They’ve regularly gone out to dinner — sometimes just the two of them, sometimes with their wives, who have also become friends. They’ve co-authored legislation tackling everything from surprise medical bills to veterans’ exposure to toxic chemicals to Medicare coverage of new drugs.

Some of Ruiz’s Democratic colleagues were torn on whether to participate in GOP-led special committees, wary of lending legitimacy to what they feared would become a “witch hunt” targeting health officials, scientists, and foreign nationals. But Ruiz accepted, hopeful that he and Wenstrup could approach the issue like physicians and find common ground — just as they had on several bills over the past decade.

The two met up in January to go over how they wanted the committee to operate and came away thinking they were on the same page — with a joint commitment to focus on what went wrong in the Covid-19 response and what policy changes are needed to address the shortcomings.

“What did we do right? What did we do wrong?” Wenstrup said. “And how do we go forward, so that in the future we can hopefully predict a pandemic, prepare ourselves, protect ourselves and hopefully prevent it?”

But the two lawmakers quickly realized that while they shared the same goals, they were miles apart on how to achieve them. Clashes erupted over hearing topics, witness invitations and document requests.

“We discussed prior to my appointment the idea that I wanted to have an objective, scientific approach,” Ruiz recalled. “Instead, we have been witnessing an effort to prove a conspiratorial accusation without any current proof.”

Asked when things started to go off the rails, both leaders pointed to the panel’s first public event in early February.

Republicans invited two of the authors of the “Great Barrington Declaration” — a document published in 2020 and embraced by the Trump administration that railed against Covid lockdowns and argued that only immunocompromised and elderly people should be isolated from the virus.

The witnesses said that “masks have zero or very limited benefit,” criticized Biden administration officials for “pushing vaccines on healthy young people,” and complained that they had been “slandered” for their views.

“The very first roundtable caught me by surprise,” Ruiz said. “The witnesses that were called, the tone, the accusations, the rhetoric. I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is nowhere near what I thought this was going to be.’”

Wenstrup said he was “disappointed” with the tone of the first hearing as well, complaining to POLITICO that some of the panel’s Democrats use their allotted five minutes to give “TED Talks” rehashing the failures of the Trump administration.

Subsequent hearings on school closures, vaccine mandates, and the lab leak theory of Covid’s origin have gotten only more heated, devolving into accusations of conspiracy mongering and political malfeasance. Members have pushed to have colleagues’ remarks stricken from the record, and put out press releases and open letters criticizing one another.

Earlier this month, Ruiz and Wenstrup’s staffs released competing reports about the origin of Covid-19 and whether U.S. health officials improperly influenced scientific investigations into the lab leak theory. Democratic staff say that because they’ve been “turned into bystanders” with no opportunity to weigh in on topics for investigation, they are likely to write more of their own reports and are mulling holding “shadow hearings” to hit topics they feel are being ignored.

Asked in a recent interview about his experience on the panel, Ruiz’s usual placid smile disappeared and he paced the length of his office, gesticulating and railing against his longtime friend’s handling of the committee and its GOP members. When a series of loud bells announcing House votes interrupted him, the former ER doctor ignored them, raising his voice to be heard over the buzzing.

“One, they cherry-pick evidence,” he said. “Two, they take the information out of context and misrepresent what happened. They disregard the truth that’s in front of them. They downplay and dismiss it. And finally, they flat out lie.”

Committee Republicans are equally pessimistic about healing the divide. Asked whether bipartisan collaboration is still possible, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) laughed.

“I’m not going to hold my breath that there’s going to be any kind of bipartisan consensus,” she said. “Unfortunately, the ranking member on the committee, who I like and respect, always goes back to Trump and blaming the last administration. I’m like, ‘OK, do we really need to do that?’”

‘In this place, everything’s political’

Lawmakers in the House and Senate — Democrats and Republicans — pushed last year for an independent, nonpartisan panel to study the Covid-19 response. Supporters of the idea, modeled on the 9/11 Commission that identified a host of national security failures, argue recommendations from such a group would have greater credibility and could break through public polarization and distrust.

But bills that would have set up an independent commission failed to advance last year, leaving the work in the hands of lawmakers.

“We need a national commission that doesn’t have members of Congress on it, because it’s clear that in this place, everything’s political,” Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Covid panel, told POLITICO. “Unfortunately, what should be based on science and protecting our country and world has become a political issue.”

As the committee prepares for a new round of investigations and hearings when Congress returns in September, each party is pointing the finger at the other for politicizing Covid-19 and undermining public trust in science and government.

“On the minority side, some individuals want to paint this as ‘Trump did everything wrong,’” said Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa), an ophthalmologist who used to run the state’s public health department. “And there’s been a tremendous amount of information that I would say is not conspiracy theory, but was labeled that by the Democrats.”

The tension is straining more than the lawmakers’ relationships.

Benjamin already sees real impacts from the committee’s dysfunction, pointing to recently released House GOP bills that slash funding for the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Food and Drug Administration.

“Just as Congress is deciding where money needs to be spent, incorrect information from those hearings is spilling over into that process,” he said. “At some point we have to ask, as a nation: Why do we continue to reinvent the wheel in every health emergency? Why can we never fix anything for the long haul but only do short-term patches?”

Still, Miller-Meeks and other GOP members insist the committee is making valuable contributions that will inform future decisions on vaccine mandates, school closures and other difficult topics.

“I think we’re really helping to prepare both the government and public health and the private sector for the next pandemic,” she said.

Hot and cold

Just before Congress left town for August recess, dozens of Ruiz and Wenstrup’s staffers packed into a drab hearing room to mingle, blow off steam, and collect on an annual bet.

As staff compared vacation plans over heaping bowls of Graeter’s ice cream — churned in Wenstrup’s district — Ruiz explained to the crowd that he proposed several years ago that the loser of the Congressional Baseball Game would throw an ice cream party for the staff of the winner.

According to three aides present, Ruiz joked that he made the wager when Democrats were enjoying a winning streak, and regrets it now that Republicans have dominated at Nats Stadium for the past three years. Wenstrup laughed and shot back that Republicans restored balance both in the game and in control of the House.

The cozy gathering was a fleeting reminder of what could have been, but less than 24 hours later, in a hearing room just down the hall, the camaraderie had melted away.

Wenstrup opened the Covid committee’s latest hearing with a broadside against the Biden administration for mandating vaccines for health care workers, federal employees and military members, saying: “Americans want to be educated, not indoctrinated.”

Ruiz responded by blasting Wenstrup and his fellow Republicans for “holding hearings that wink and nod to rhetoric that undermines confidence in vaccines.”

For the past six months, the pair have lived this split-screen — trying to maintain their friendship even as their clashes over the committee’s work become increasingly heated, with each adamant that they are in the right.

In June, Ruiz sent Wenstrup a letter complaining that the committee has “not pursued objective oversight of the pandemic’s origins” and has made “aggressive narrative attempts to vilify public health officials.” He also shared the letter with The Washington Post, tactics Wenstrup said he found hurtful.

“I don’t know why he did that when we talk to each other all the time,” he said. “We have always had each other’s phone numbers.”

Wenstrup also hit back at the substance of the letter, arguing that examining the actions of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health officials is not the same as “vilifying” them.

“We have an oversight role,” he said. “I think that we, as a Congress, have a responsibility to look at all those things.”

Ruiz responded that the way Wenstrup and his GOP colleagues are conducting oversight threatens to “foment distrust in experts.”

“I’m concerned that in the next pandemic we’ll create a scenario where people will refuse to follow guidance on how to block transmission of aerosolized viruses because they simply don’t trust federal agencies,” he said.

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