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Utah congressman backs COVID-19 commission if focus is on making improvements rather than assigning blame

SHARE Utah congressman backs COVID-19 commission if focus is on making improvements rather than assigning blame

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks during the Utah Republican Party’s state convention at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy on Saturday, May 20, 2017.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Chris Stewart would favor a 9/11-style commission to look at how prepared the United States was to handle a pandemic as long as it doesn’t set out to embarrass President Donald Trump.

Also, the Utah Republican said he worries that ongoing government-imposed social distancing restrictions could make socialism more acceptable to the country.

Stewart said he would not support a review trying to blame someone for the U.S. response to the coronavirus outbreak. Most government agencies, he said, have done an “extraordinary” though not perfect job. He said it would “probably be appropriate” to examine what the nation could have done three or five years ago to be better prepared.

“But if this is just an effort to try to diminish or embarrass the president or some of the other people that are working around him that I think generally are doing an outstanding job, I don’t think that’s helpful at all,” he said during a 45-minute telephone town hall Thursday night where he answered Utahns’ questions.

Congress tasked an independent, bipartisan panel in late 2002 to compile an account of the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. 

At least two House Democrats have proposed establishing a 9/11-style commission to look into the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 7,000 Americans. Democrats have sharply criticized how Trump has dealt with the crisis.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., last week called for the creation of a bipartisan commission with subpoena power to investigate the response by the Trump administration and other levels of government.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., introduced legislation Wednesday modeled after the 9/11 Commission to study the government’s response to the crisis and offer recommendations.

Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said there’s no question the federal government was not as ready as it should have been.

“But that isn’t laid at the feet of Donald Trump by himself. It’s also Barack Obama. It goes back many, many years,” he said.

“I know there’s some who want to blame the president,” he said. “I think that’s misguided.”

Stewart said Trump has acted correctly in deferring to governors to make decisions about restrictions in their states. There shouldn’t be a federal mandate locking people down or saying what stores should or shouldn’t be open, he said.

New York City is different than Salt Lake City, which is different than Richfield or St. George, Stewart said.

“As a lot of us watch this, we become increasingly concerned that we not give up our civil liberties, that we not give up the presumption of the right to go about your pursuit of happiness, which for most of us is the right to be employed and to feed our family,” Stewart said.

Utah is among a dozen states that has not issued a statewide stay-at-home order, though some counties have done so. Gov. Gary Herbert has issued a “stay safe, stay home” directive through April 13.

Herbert said Friday that his directive is “virtually” the same as an order, and he expects people to abide by it. If people don’t comply, the state could take more aggressive steps, he said.

Stewart said he thinks the vast majority of people understand this is for a short period of time, and is necessary for a few weeks or maybe a month.

“But we would never agree to let these types of restrictions for any length or period of time beyond what was absolutely critical to protect ourselves and to protect our friends and neighbors,” he said.

Stewart said he has been concerned about the rise of the acceptance of socialism in the U.S. and how the current government restrictions and the $2.2 trillion relief package play into that idea.

“I worry a little bit that this kind of sets the pattern for that because people begin to think the federal government seems to have all the money they need, and the federal government seems to have a lot of power and the federal government seems to have a lot of solutions, and that’s not the case,” he said.

People need to resist the perception that government is the “omnipotent power” that solves all problems, Stewart said. In this circumstance, he said, the federal government has done what it needed to do with the rescue package, but it shouldn’t be a model for how to run the economy.