Recently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi created a special select committee to oversee the administration of stimulus funds passed in the wake of the economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. That move should have been bipartisan, but Republicans largely voted against the measure, as they saw creation of the committee as part of Democrats’ moves against President Trump. That’s a shame. The need for strict scrutiny over how the stimulus money is spent ought to be an area of bipartisan agreement; it would have been far better to see both parties come to a consensus on that issue.

We can’t afford to have those same kind of partisan divisions going forward, when the time comes to review the government’s actions during this crisis. That’s why, rather than create another special committee to investigate the administration’s handling of the pandemic, leaders of both parties ought to embrace the creation of an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the matter. These independent commissions are commonplace after major events, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks and the financial crisis, to name a few. As long as the commission is truly independent and bipartisan, Republicans – and the administration – should have nothing to fear from it.

The devil will always be in the details, but one of the advantages of such a commission is that its investigation is divorced from politics more than that of, say, a congressional committee, which is run by the majority party. Leaving such an important matter to Congress itself to investigate is asking for trouble, as it’s all too easy for the minority party to dismiss the results, or for the majority party to craft its final report to fit its pre-selected narrative.

We saw this most recently with the select committee established by Republicans to investigate the terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, which Democrats boycotted almost entirely and criticized as a blatantly political inquiry. Regardless of whether that accusation was accurate, the lack of a bipartisan consensus in the results of the investigation made it easy for partisans to embrace or dismiss as they wished.

Another advantage of establishing an independent commission is that it can include commissioners who aren’t sitting members of Congress, like experts in a particular field, governors or former officeholders. That would be especially valuable in any investigation of the federal response to the pandemic, as it would be useful to hear from both medical and economic experts.

One of the goals of an investigation would be not just to figure out what the government did correctly and incorrectly in their response, but also how to improve things going forward. They can look at the crisis as a whole, rather than simply one particular part of it, as is common when congressional committees or executive-branch departments conduct their own investigations.

Further, an independent commission does not have to hew to political timetables in completing its work. If Congress began investigating the administration’s response on its own, there would be political pressure on them from both sides to complete it before the election.

That would be a completely absurd timetable, as these types of major investigations often take a year or more and the country is still making its way through this crisis. Even if they were able to ignore that pressure and carry on through the election, they’d face the risk of the investigation itself becoming a campaign issue.

A federal commission investigating the response to the coronavirus could serve as a model for local and state governments as well. Often, major events that are investigated by independent commissions may have a national impact, but they take place only in a limited area (like Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy), so there’s not much need for states to do their own investigations. That’s certainly not the case with this disaster, where every governor in the country has had to respond to one degree or another.

Here in Maine, it would also be wise for the Legislature to consider establishing an independent commission to investigate the government’s response to the pandemic. The panel could examine the actions not only of the Mills administration, but also of the Legislature and various cities, towns and organizations across the state. If we do that successfully in a fair, bipartisan way, we might be able to actually learn from this crisis and avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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