The empty spectacle of a coronavirus oversight committee
There was a brief period (it may have lasted for as long as 48 hours) when Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer went from insisting that Donald Trump posed an existential threat to the United States of America to insisting that he must assume unilateral authority over the whole of the United States in order to save us from an actual existential threat: the coronavirus pandemic. Those of us looking for any little bit of good news these days should take comfort from the fact that this brief era in American politics has already run its course, and Democratic politicians are now looking ahead to the peace and plenty of opposition. Once again Trump is the bad guy, and the number-one priority of the legislative branch is to undermine his administration during this ostensible period of unprecedented crisis.
This at any rate is the only conclusion I can draw from the recent announcement that Democrats will be creating a panel to oversee the Trump's administration's handling of coronavirus relief. The idea behind the oversight group, which will be led by Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina (whose turn-out efforts on behalf of Joe Biden in his home state now seem like ancient history), is to "root out waste, fraud, and abuse."
This phrase will be familiar of course to anyone who followed the fortunes of the Tea Party during its six-year-long stranglehold on public life during the Obama administration. It is cant. When trillions of dollars are being spent during a crisis, waste is inevitable, fraud of little importance, and abuse essential. Of course government funds are going to be wasted — what else do you call it when the equivalent of the entire federal budget is being spent in the hope of ameliorating the effects of a self-inflicted economic depression? The whole point of a stimulus package is to give people and businesses money as quickly as possible. Fraud is going to happen no matter what because acting swiftly here is more important than figuring out whether every single relief applicant has told the truth in every particular. As for abuse: no major piece of relief legislation in modern American history has ever passed without huge portions of it going to undeserving persons in positions of influence. This is simply how the world works. It is also irrelevant because even if 25 or 50 percent of all beneficiaries are undeserving, the ones who are not cannot wait long enough for the former to be determined.
Democrats know this all too well, which is why they resisted the attempts of the GOP to turn the 2008 financial crisis into a lesson on good government from a high-school civics textbook. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the message you are trying to send people is that the current pandemic is more serious than whether Trump made a joke about Russian hacking on TV one time or whether not actually canceling foreign aid is an impeachable offense, you could start by not giving the opposite impression. The last thing the country needs right now is more partisan theatrics.
Is coronavirus another story about a misguided expert consensus going more or less unchallenged, like "Saddam has weapons" or "Trump is a Russian asset," or is it the real thing? The problem we face is that it would be impossible to know from the response. America's political institutions have eroded to the point that they are incapable of solving even the simplest problems. The 10 plagues of Egypt could be sweeping across the land as I write this, and Sean Hannity would be on television explaining that Pharaoh Trump's plan to build special locust-repelling pyramids like you wouldn't believe is simultaneously genius and unnecessary because the bugs are fake while the leaders of the opposition party held Zoom hearings on whether there was an impeachable 1.2 percent discrepancy between official and media totals of granary-held wheat reserves.
It's not just that we can't handle actual crises with no obvious partisan angles. It's that we don't want to.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.