Op-Ed: America’s coronavirus crisis needs a 9/11 Commission

COVID-19 has altered the course of our nation’s history in so many ways. Even as we fight to bring the virus under control and save lives, we are also aware that our country will be feeling the effects of the pandemic for years and possibly decades to come. It isn’t enough to beat the virus, we have a responsibility to learn from our mistakes so we can be better prepared in the future.

This pandemic has devastated communities across America. As this piece gets posted, nearly 4 million Americans have been confirmed as infected, and more than 140,000 have died. Our home state of California is particularly hard hit, with most of the state seeing a renewed surge of cases and hospitalizations.

The economic devastation, too, is of historic proportions. Tens of millions are unemployed or under-employed. The unemployment rate skyrocketed from 3.5% earlier this year to 11% today, and many of those who were laid off won’t get their old jobs back.

And unfortunately, we are still in what the scientists say is the first wave of this devastating virus. In other words, it will likely continue to get worse before it gets better. Many regions of the U.S. reopened too soon or with insufficient safeguards — such as universal masking and adequate distancing leading to the exact increase in infections and deaths that health experts warned us about.

We all have to take steps now to contain this virus to save lives and let people get back to school and work safely, but it’s not too early to start planning for the next virus, and that starts with examining how we got here. That’s why we introduced legislation in the Senate and the House to ensure a comprehensive review of the action, and inaction, that led us to this crisis point.

After the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans demanded action, but they also demanded answers. Answers about how the attacks took place, what we missed, and what we needed to do better to secure our nation from terrorist threats.

In the wake of that tragedy, Americans, and especially the families of those who we lost, supported a truly comprehensive review of the attacks. Congress passed legislation in 2002 to create the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The commission’s work was independent, impartial and thorough. The country suffered from many of same partisan divides we have today, but the commission didn’t seek to assign blame to score political points. It simply got to work to ensure we could prevent future tragic events.

The 9/11 Commission’s hearings were deemed invaluable in explaining to the American people how those attacks came about, and its recommendations were widely respected and largely implemented. For example, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center — two essential components of the U.S. intelligence community — were created as a direct result of the commission’s findings and recommendations.

We are presented with a similar opportunity today, a chance to look back, so that we can move forward together.

To that end, our legislation would create a bipartisan commission that would begin work in 2021. It would rigorously examine U.S. government preparedness in advance of this pandemic, as well as the federal government’s response, complementing other oversight efforts in Congress. The commission would provide recommendations to improve our ability to respond to and recover from future pandemics.

And importantly, the commission would hold open hearings, as the 9/11 Commission did, to obtain information to provide a full accounting to the president, Congress and the American people of the facts and circumstances related to the outbreak in the United States. We need a firmer grasp on the best information, not as a political exercise to cast blame, but to learn from our mistakes so we can prevent the problems we now face from being tragically repeated. It is our hope that Congress and the White House, this one or a future one, would share a similar desire to enact legislation to establish a COVID-19 commission in support of our nation’s health and welfare.

The nation’s response to the pandemic presents us with an opportunity to learn what has worked, and what hasn’t. An honest analysis is the only way to adequately prepare for the next novel virus or another disaster. An effective response can save lives, but designing it requires a transparent reckoning with all the facts.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein is the senior senator from California. Democrat Adam Schiff represents California’s 28th Congressional District in the House of Representatives.