As ranking member of the United States House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Congressman James Comer has been busily compiling documents and depositions with his staff for subjects he wants to examine should he become chair of that panel.
With Republicans set to take control of the House in January, Kentucky’s 1st district representative will finally get his chance. As the incoming chairman of the committee, he says he has dozens of investigations on his agenda for the 118th Congress. While border security is at the top of his list, Comer says he will also look into alleged influence peddling by relatives of President Joe Biden, mismanagement of unemployment insurance, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m concerned about all things COVID, I want to know the origination of COVID,” says Comer. “We need to try to find answers, the American people deserve answers.”
Politicians and public health officials have debated the source of the virus, and the role of the Chinese government and others in its spread. Comer contends Dr. Anthony Fauci, the outgoing director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was dishonest in his COVID testimony before the Senate, and he alleges that the National Institutes of Health used a slush fund to get government scientists to comply with “bad decisions that Dr. Fauci was making.” He also says the Democratic majority in the current Congress has failed to properly investigate these issues.
“It doesn’t seem that this government has been serious about trying to determine the origination, much less hold anyone accountable,” says Comer.
Beyond the source of the virus, Comer wants to review who actually received federal pandemic aid under the administrations of President Biden and former President Donald Trump. The Congressman says taxpayers deserve to know how billions of dollars from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Pan were spent. He acknowledges that part of the responsibility for misspent funds falls on him and his fellow lawmakers.
“Congress didn’t put guardrails on a lot of the money they handed out, so there are plenty of people in both parties to blame,” says Comer. “My job is to try to get a report and try to put a price tag on how much exactly was wasted.”
Shutdowns and layoffs caused by the pandemic revealed critical flaws in state unemployment systems, according to Comer. Although many states experienced problems paying unemployment benefits due to an overwhelming number of claims, Comer contends his home state was one of the worst.
“Kentucky, it appears, has had a lot of unemployment insurance fraud, both in terms of being hacked as well as fraudulent claims,” he says. “This is something that I don’t think [Gov.] Andy Beshear received very much criticism for in the press, but it was sure a black eye on Kentucky. A lot of working families suffered.”
Comer declines to say whether he plans to subpoena Gov. Beshear to testify before his committee on Kentucky’s unemployment problems. But he does say he doesn’t think anyone did anything intentionally wrong in Frankfort. The problem, according to the Congressman, is outdated computer systems in unemployment offices around the country.
“They don’t have the capacity to protect their data from these sophisticated cyberattacks that we’re seeing from these foreign countries,” he says.
By looking into the issue, Comer says he hopes to hold people accountable for wrong-doing, claw back any misspent funds, and develop legislation to fix data security at the state level.
“We’re not trying to point fingers at people for political reasons, but we want taxpayers of America to know that the federal and state government... wasted a lot of your tax dollars in the name of COVID,” says Comer.
Influence Peddling and Border Security
The Congressman is also eager to explore the financial dealings of Biden family members. Republicans have alleged that the president’s brother, Jim, and son, Hunter, have engaged with influence peddling with agents of foreign countries.
Comer says the issue is not limited to the Bidens but has been a problem throughout various presidential administrations. He says Congress needs to clarify and strengthen influence peddling laws that regulate the actions of family members and associates of government officials.
“If we don’t have the law crystal clear as to what relatives can do, then every president is going to be in a potentially compromised situation through a relative because China and Russia and Saudi Arabia, they’re going to go in and they’re going to offer those relatives large sums of money for access,” he says.
In response to criticism that he hasn’t announced plans to investigate influence peddling by Trump family members, Comer responds that he never said the former president wasn’t on his agenda. He also adds that Congressional Democrats already have investigated everything possible relating to the former president. But he says President Trump’s global business interests needed better disclosure, and lawmakers should at least require greater transparency so that voters know where a president’s money comes from and with whom they do business.
Given the lingering immigration crisis, Comer says border security deserves closer scrutiny, especially decisions made by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. In November, Comer said the past fiscal year saw record levels of illegal immigration, apprehensions of suspected terrorists, and seizures of the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl. Some Republicans have called for the impeachment of Mayorkas.
While investigations into illegal immigration and COVID may seem far removed from the daily lives of his constituents, Comer says they are key to addressing inflation and drug addiction issues that people in western and central Kentucky face every day.
“The best way to reduce inflation is to stop the wasteful spending,” says Comer. “So I’m playing a leading role in reducing inflation [and] in securing the border, which will lower the crime rate in Kentucky.”
McGarvey Moves from Frankfort to Washington
A new member will join Kentucky’s Congressional delegation come January. Louisville Democrat Morgan McGarvey will be sworn in to replace 3rd district Rep. John Yarmuth, who is retiring after eight terms.
McGarvey moves to Washington after a decade in the state Senate, where he passed a number of bills despite being in the minority. He says that experience will serve him well as he enters the U.S. House of Representatives, which is switching to GOP control.
“I don’t give up on anything,” says McGarvey. “That’s how I’ve been a Democrat in Frankfort the last 10 years.”
A key issue for McGarvey is gun safety. He says he doesn’t understand why Washington can’t act on something as simple as universal background checks when the vast majority of Americans support them.
“I refuse to accept the notion that there is nothing we can do on this,” he says.
In Frankfort, McGarvey co-sponsored a bipartisan measure that would create a process to temporarily remove firearms from the possession of someone deemed to be an imminent threat to themselves or others. That measure failed to gain traction in the General Assembly, but McGarvey hopes he can muster support for something similar on Capitol Hill. He says more than 60 percent of gun deaths in America are suicides.
“Having that cooling-off period can really save lives,” McGarvey says. “This is really making sure that we are protecting people’s rights while also protecting people and our communities.”
The Democrat says he thinks abortion rights will be a critical point of debate. He says Congress should put a woman’s right to the procedure into law, especially given how many states, including Kentucky, have banned abortions under nearly any circumstance.
“I don’t think that people want these extreme measures throughout the country and so I think the federal government needs to act,” says McGarvey.
But he adds that legislation to protect abortion rights is unlikely with what will be a Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate.
When McGarvey takes his oath of office on Jan. 3, he will be accompanied by his two young children (spouses aren’t allowed on the House floor during the ceremony). He says he and many other new members will provide a fresh outlook to the chamber.
“It’s a young class, there’s a lot of young families, and I that brings a new, exciting energy,” says McGarvey.