Congress needs to get tough with Biden administration officials who ignore legitimate requests for information concerning COVID-19, the pandemic that killed more than 1.1 million Americans.
Many unanswered questions remain about the origins of the virus and the government’s response to the pandemic. While Congressional investigators, especially in the House of Representatives, have been doing an outstanding job, Biden’s officials have nonetheless stymied numerous efforts to secure crucial information on the pandemic. Here are just a few of the many examples:
First, despite Congress unanimously enacting the COVID-19 Origin Act of 2023, which statutorily required the Biden administration to declassify “any and all” information related to the activities of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the research role of the Chinese military, and initial illnesses of research scientists, the Biden administration has failed to comply.
Under the statute, the only redactions allowed in the report were to protect intelligence “sources and methods.” After missing a June 18 deadline for the delivery of the report, Avril Haines, director of National Intelligence, sent Congress a “paltry” 5-page report on June 23, plus a cover page and a glossary of terms that failed to provide the information required by the statute. On June 27, the law’s authors, Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) demanded that Haines deliver the legally required information within seven days, writing that: “This half-baked effort falls woefully short of the statutory requirements and undermines congressional intent.” In response, Haines told the Senate authors of the law that her scanty report met the spirit and letter of the law. It did not.
Secondly, the Department of Health and Human Services has failed to provide information about Dr. Anthony Fauci’s February 1, 2020, memo to top HHS officials concerning his discussions with top virologists and the origins of the pandemic. Fauci’s memo then confirmed his personal knowledge that “gain of function” experiments—dangerous research designed to enhance the transmissibility and virulence of pathogens—were being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
On July 13, 2023, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), Chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, requested Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide all related information concerning Fauci’s February 1, 2020, memo (internal talking points, notes, and any other relevant documents). Wenstrup requested delivery of the information by July 27, 2023, but as of this writing, there has still been no response.
Third, the Department of Justice, unsurprisingly, has also been unresponsive. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY.) has repeatedly requested the Department to conduct an investigation into whether Dr. Anthony Fauci committed perjury in his May 2021 Senate testimony concerning the origins of the coronavirus. The key issue is whether any federal funds, dispensed by Fauci’s National Institute of Allergies Infectious Diseases (NIAD) or any other agency, were used to finance “gain of function” research in China. Under oath, Fauci doggedly denied that there was any federal funding of gain-of-function research in Wuhan.
At the time, Senator Paul found neither Fauci’s wordy explanations nor his heated denials persuasive. And since, further reporting has revealed that certain Chinese research institutions received over $2 million in federal funds over a 7 year period, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which was engaged in gain-of-function coronavirus research. The Institute was a subcontractor of EcoHealth Alliance, a firm that had received substantial American taxpayer funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
On July 21 , Sen. Paul requested the Justice Department to open an investigation into the truthfulness of Fauci’s sworn testimony. Attorney General Merrick Garland ignored that request. On July 14, 2023, Sen. Paul renewed his request, and in his second letter, he cited Fauci’s awareness of dangerous “gain of function” research in Wuhan and NIAD’s documented funding of China’s research into “artificial viruses able to infect human cells”. No response. Finally, Sen. Paul sent a third letter (August 8, 2023) to Matthew Graves, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, citing this circumstantial evidence, and asking him to initiate an investigation. And as of this writing, there has still been no response.
Fourth, on March 28, 2023, Rep. Wenstrup asked Dr. Rochelle Walensky, then Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for documents related to the agency’s actions regarding its guidance on schools’ reopening and potential political interference. American schoolchildren were severely damaged by mandatory school closures during the pandemic and it is worth asking to what extent federal government guidance was dictated by external political considerations.
Walensky ignored this request. On June 1, 2023, Wenstrup again asked for the documents, and Walensky only delivered documents that were already in the public domain under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In his third letter to Walensky on June 28, 2023, Wenstrup once again asked for the relevant documents, including phone records and text messages between her and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Upon sending, Wenstrup remarked: “The Department of Health and Human Services is continuing its pattern of obstructing Congress by apparently only producing documents already made publicly available via the FOIA.”
Finally, the most recent example of the Biden administration ignoring Congress comes courtesy of a top NIH official, who used private emails to hide COVID-related information from the public. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), ranking member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, recently revealed that Dr. David Morens, a senior advisor to Fauci, used his personal email account, rather than his government account, in an apparent attempt to evade requests for information concerning COVID-19 under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Because of unsatisfactory NIH internal probes, Johnson asked the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to investigate the matter. In his August 14, 2023, letter to HHS Inspector General Christi Grimm, Johnson stated: “NIH, which includes NIAD, also appears to have engaged in the destruction of federal records. According to a whistleblower allegation made public on February 22, 2022, NIH has allegedly instructed staff to destroy records, in particular records related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).” Grimm responded by saying that she would neither “confirm nor deny” the existence of any ongoing investigations.
Enough is Enough. Congress has the sole responsibility to legislate on behalf of the American people, and its Constitutional power to legislate includes its right to secure information on any topic within its legislative jurisdiction. Congress’s greatest Constitutional power is its power of the purse: its authority to fund or withhold funding of the agencies and operations of federal agencies and compel their compliance with information requests. To stop this non-sense and make the Biden administration answer crucial questions, lawmakers can take three actions.
First, cut federal appropriations to noncompliant agencies and departments of the federal government. For noncompliance, or pending compliance, with congressional requests for information, appropriators, for example, can cut funding for an agency’s office of the Director or Secretary, salaries for political appointees or travel budgets or any public relations contracting, or even zero out funding for the agencies’ legislative affairs or public affairs offices.
Second, invoke the “Holman Rule”. This is a special rule of the U.S. House of Representatives that would permit amendments to House appropriations bills to reduce or eliminate the salary of specific federal officials. Rooted in the nineteenth century, the House of Representatives has not consistently maintained the Holman Rule as standard House rule. In 2019, for example, House Democrats abolished it. In 2023, House Republicans revived it. It is time to invoke it.
Third, place “holds” on Presidential nominees to department or agency positions. Under Senate rules, a Senator can place a “hold” on a nominee by telling the Senate majority or minority leader of the Senator’s objection to Senate approval by unanimous consent. When applied to a particular agency, affecting all the agency’s nominees, a Senator’s hold is called a “blanket hold”. To break a Senate “hold” on the approval of a nominee requires a “cloture” vote, a time-consuming process that eats up precious Senate floor time.
Team Biden’s behavior follows a pattern. When administration officials ignore, delay, or deny legitimate congressional requests for information, they subvert the right of our democratically elected representatives to fulfill their legislative responsibilities. Worse still, they deny the American people’s right to know what happened during the pandemic that took so many of their lives. It’s time for that to change. Congress should take more direct and aggressive actions until the Biden administration complies.
This piece originally appeared in RealClear Health