June 18, 2020

Menendez Opening Remarks at Committee Hearing on COVID-19 and U.S. International Pandemic Preparedness, Prevention, and Response

WASHINGTON — Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the opening remarks at today’s committee hearing on COVID-19 and International Pandemic Preparedness, Prevention, and Response.

“The American people deserve to hear from members of the President’s hand-picked team to understand what it is doing to address the worst pandemic the world has faced in 100 years — more than 8 million cases worldwide, and more than 115,000 American lives lost.  In my own home state of New Jersey, which is the second largest state in the nation in terms of COVID deaths, I am vividly reminded of this consequence.,” said Ranking Member Menendez. “This tragedy has assuredly been a wake-up call to those who question whether we should engage with — and invest in — the rest of the world.

So I would like to use this hearing to understand how we got here — what we knew about the virus and when, and how we are leveraging our diplomatic relationships and leadership to best respond and protect the American people.  So far most of what we have seen is a lot of bluster, finger pointing, and retrenchment. 

Last month, Menendez led the entire Democratic bench of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in introducing sweeping comprehensive legislation to provide an additional $9 billion in funding to help support international efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.  The COVID-19 International Response and Recovery Act (CIRRA) is aimed at compelling the Trump Administration to constructively engage with other countries, international organizations, and multilateral fora to stop the spread of COVID-19, which will continue to exacerbate the United States’ public health and economic crisis without a coordinated global response.

Below are Ranking Member Menendez’s full remarks as delivered:

Thank you Mr. Chairman for convening today’s hearing. As you know, I have been seeking a series of hearings on COVID for quite some time. I am pleased we are now having one. I understand you intend to hold more, and I strongly support that.

But let me start by speaking to the larger concerns that the Democratic Minority recently wrote to you about. We must have serious and sustained focus on U.S. foreign policy and a serious oversight agenda, and we want to work with you to make that happen.

Mr. Chairman, we should be having more public hearings. We need to tackle the major challenges that confront us: Afghanistan, Venezuela, and North Korea just to mention some. And we need to ensure the Secretary of State testifies before this Committee.

We should all be shocked and, frankly, offended, that the Secretary is refusing to appear, refusing to defend the Administration’s foreign affairs budget; we should all be insisting on his appearance. This could be the first time in over twenty years that a Secretary of State has not testified before this Committee to explain Administration priorities. After Ambassador Bolton’s book, we will never see him again.

This lack of engagement fundamentally undermines our work. Not only does the Secretary of State feel comfortable in refusing to come before us, that refusal apparently extends to other Senate-confirmed officials — we have heard from only one Senate-confirmed official this entire year. And the Administration has repeatedly ignored oversight inquiries, many of them even bipartisan.

We do not need to rehash the contentious vote on Michael Pack. But we should all be seriously concerned about what we’ve seen in the last ten days and 24 hours at the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Mr. Pack has gone on a wholesale firing spree, removing the heads of the networks, dissolving their corporate boards only to replace them with unqualified political people, fundamentally undermining the mission and work of the organization.

It’s now obvious why the White House wanted Pack so badly — so they could transform the Agency into their own personal mouthpiece. This is a blow from which it may never recover. Once the credibility is gone, nobody will ever trust a report from Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti, nor trust the tools of the Open Technology Fund.

So Mr. Chairman, I urge you to respond to the letter that we sent you in the spirit in which it was offered. On behalf of myself and all of the Democratic members of the Committee, I can tell you that we want to work with you. We want to find common ground.

We want the State Department to be successful and we want this Committee to take on serious work and make a meaningful impact on the national and world stage. Let’s work together to make this happen.

Now, while I thank all of our witnesses for their service, it is disappointing the White House would not send a member of the Coronavirus Task Force, or any of the Senate confirmed individuals from the State Department, Health and Human Services, or the United States Agency for International Development responsible for the Administration’s response.

The American people deserve to hear from members of the President’s hand-picked team to understand what it is doing to address the worst pandemic the world has faced in 100 years — more than 8 million cases worldwide, and more than 115,000 American lives lost.  In my own home state of New Jersey, which is the second largest state in the nation in terms of COVID deaths, I am vividly reminded of this consequence.

This tragedy has assuredly been a wake-up call to those who question whether we should engage with — and invest in — the rest of the world.

So I would like to use this hearing to understand how we got here — what we knew about the virus and when, and how we are leveraging our diplomatic relationships and leadership to best respond and protect the American people. 

So far most of what we have seen is a lot of bluster, finger pointing, and retrenchment. 

Yes, we should examine the World Health Organization’s initial response — I wish we had someone from the State Department’s Bureau of International Organizations here to do exactly that — but we also know that the U.S. was regularly communicating with and receiving information from the WHO, including through U.S. Government employees embedded at WHO headquarters in Geneva.

And rather than seriously consider how to best leverage our leadership and contributions, the President abruptly announced the U.S. would simply pull out of the organization; threatening not just our ability to confront COVID-19, but risking decades of progress on other global health initiatives including combating Polio and Ebola.

And yes, China has a lot to answer for, but the Administration’s use of racially stigmatizing language to describe COVID-19 in direct contradiction to guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been deeply hurtful to Americans at home, and utterly counterproductive in leading an international response.

The Secretary of State’s insistence that the rest of the world agree to use such language has prevented us from reaching consensus at the G7 and in the Security Council.

While the White House engages in divisive rhetoric, the rest of the world is stepping up. Without us. When Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the World Health Assembly in May, he pledged $2 billion over two years to combat COVID-19. 

In contrast, when Secretary Azar addressed the Assembly, he attacked the WHO and cast blame on China. 

The European Union held a pledging conference on vaccines last month, at which over $8 billion was raised. The White House declined the invitation to participate for reasons that are beyond me. Is this what the Administration means by “America First”?

If this EU consortium comes up with a vaccine before we do, it will mean “America Last”.  This approach is not only isolationist, shortsighted and foolish – it endangers American lives.

Finally, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I’m all for ensuring the U.S. government is better organized to prevent, detect and respond to future pandemics both here are abroad, but some of the proposals coming out of the Administration — eerily similar to those coming from some Members of Congress — are ill-thought, destructive and dangerous in so far as they would cripple USAID, and create a mechanism at the World Bank through which the Administration could channel all of the funding it’s withholding from the WHO. 

So I look forward to the first of what I hope are many thorough discussions. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

###

Press Contact

Juan Pachon 202-224-4651