Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the House of Representatives has been, since mid-March, trying to adapt to new ways of doing business—including the efforts by committees to oversee actions by the Trump administration. We’ve been tracking oversight activity during this period—both related to the pandemic itself and beyond—using the Brookings House Oversight Tracker, and here’s what we’ve learned.
1. Many committees are involved in COVID-19-related oversight.
COVID-19 has greatly increased both the supply of and demand for oversight activity within the House Democratic caucus.
Unlike the impeachment inquiry, where six committees were given specific investigatory powers and the lion’s share of the work was done by two (Intelligence and Judiciary), COVID-19 investigations have been less coordinated. The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, a creation of the CARES Act that was meant to play a central role in the House oversight efforts, was slow to start investigations. While the subcommittee’s investigative work has since increased, the Democratic members also hold the gavels of separate committees or subcommittees, and many are continuing to pursue COVID-19-related investigations within their own jurisdictions.
Demand for oversight activity is also high with members seeking opportunities to demonstrate to their constituents that they have taken deliberate action to combat the damaging effects of the virus. As of July 2, 34 committees and subcommittees had held an oversight hearing or sent an investigative letter on a topic related to COVID-19. The impressive number of committees participating in oversight activity can also be attributed to the wide scope of issues encompassed by the crisis.
2. Committees are continuing preexisting oversight investigations but using COVID-19 to frame requests.
House committees are also exploring the implications of COVID-19 for policy areas in which they were engaging in oversight before the pandemic. The Judiciary Committee, for example, has increased its scrutiny of the administration’s family separation policy, arguing that the administration is exploiting the crisis to pursue “unlawful and inhumane immigration policies.” In a separate letter, the Committee also scrutinized the preparedness of detention sites for coronavirus outbreaks and their general sanitation. Similarly, the Committees on Homeland Security, Natural Resources, and Oversight and Reform have all sought answers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on its preparation for a threatening hurricane season. In their letters, the committees use COVID-19 as a reason to follow up on previous investigations into disaster preparedness.
3. Fewer hearings may be pushing rank-and-file House members, and Democratic Senators, to sign more letters.
Since March 13, the House has held 26 oversight hearings, a 76% reduction from the comparable period last year. As opportunities to participate in hearings have declined, rank-and-file members appear to be increasing their engagement with oversight letters in response. Although these additional signatures are not legally significant, they provide members with a way to signal their positions on issues. Prior to March 13, 2020, when representatives largely vacated the Hill over coronavirus concerns, 19% of oversight letters included signatures from members other than the relevant committee or subcommittee chair. Since that date, however, 29% of oversight letters have been signed by at least one rank-and-file member, and the average number of additional signatures per letter more than doubled from 1.29 to 2.63.
With Senate oversight at its weakest point in the last twelve years by one measure, senators have increased engagement with the House oversight letter process. The average number of Senators’ signatures on House oversight letters has jumped by 50% to 0.21 from 0.14 during the same time period last year. A May 27 letter from the Committee on Natural Resources to the FEMA Administrator regarding the preparedness of U.S. territories for both the hurricane season and coronavirus infections, for example, garnered 41 non-chair signatories, including 14 senators.
4. Letters are making fewer oversight requests.
Since vacating Capitol Hill in mid-March, committees have been more likely to send letters urging a change in administration policy, such as expanding authorities under the Defense Production Act for medical supplies, as opposed to making an oversight request.
Since March 13, only 51% of all letters sent by House committees involved oversight requests compared to 64% of letters prior to that date. Of letters addressed to executive branch officials specifically, that share only dropped slightly from 73% to 71%. While there are several potential explanations for this change, one involves legislators shifting their strategy for influencing the executive branch in a time of fewer hearings and less legislating.
With the House likely to continue a significant amount of remote operations in the coming months and emerging pressure to investigate issues like structural racism in police departments on the agenda, members will have to continue to adapt—as they have so far—to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
 Chairwoman Maxine Waters (Committee on Financial Services), Chairwoman Carolyn (Committee on Oversight and Reform), Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez (Committee on Small Business) and Chairman Jamie Raskin (Committee on Oversight and Reform, Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties) have all overseen COVID-19 related oversight actions within their own committees.