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Brad Wenstrup is leaving Congress. First, he’s probing the pandemic

The Ohio Republican calls it ‘one of the most serious responsibilities I’ve had’

“There are a lot of unknowns, and I’ve taken the approach that it’s an after-action review,” says 
Rep. Brad Wenstrup of his work on the select subcommittee investigating the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are a lot of unknowns, and I’ve taken the approach that it’s an after-action review,” says Rep. Brad Wenstrup of his work on the select subcommittee investigating the coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Before he came to Congress, Brad Wenstrup was a podiatrist, a combat surgeon in Iraq, an Army Reserve officer and a candidate for Cincinnati mayor.

“It was not part of my plan, when I decided to be a doctor,” he says. 

The Ohio Republican announced last fall that, like more than 40 of his House colleagues, he would retire at the end of this term rather than seek reelection. With eight months left before he goes, Wenstrup is borrowing a military term.

“It’s an after-action review,” he says of his work on the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. “We look at lessons learned, and how we can predict the next one, prepare for it, protect ourselves and maybe prevent it.”

“It’s not fishing to ask, What did you say and do during this time?” he adds, pushing back on criticism from Democrats, including ranking member and fellow doctor Raul Ruiz, who has described parts of the investigation as an “extreme fishing expedition.”

Wenstrup has lived through some of the lowest moments in recent congressional history, including the baseball practice in 2017 where a gunman opened fire. Now he says he wants to leave on a high note. “I’m going to miss a lot of the people, and I’m going to miss engaging on the issues. But I won’t miss the separation from my family.” 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Why did you decide this term would be your last?

A: When I came here, I had just gotten married. Now my kids are 10 and 6, and they’re noticing, and so am I, that I’m missing a lot of things. 

One morning, I’m leaving on a Monday and I said to my son, “I’ll be home Thursday night, but we’ll do FaceTime.” And he said, “OK, but I’ll still miss you.”

But I don’t leave bitter or any of that stuff, and I’m actually pleased with my opportunities this term. Normally, after four terms on the Intelligence Committee, you don’t get a fifth, but Kevin McCarthy gave me a waiver. I’m on Ways and Means, a sought-after committee, and I like the work we can do there, especially when I can engage on health issues. 

And then Speaker McCarthy asked me to chair the select subcommittee on the pandemic, and I take that as one of the most serious responsibilities I’ve had since I’ve been here, when you look at how many people died. There are a lot of unknowns, and I’ve taken the approach that it’s an after-action review. 

So this is a good run, in spite of all the things that are going on that have changed since I first got here. Let’s put it that way. 

Q: What has changed, in your view? You’ve been here since 2013.

A: More people are here to be performers rather than to perform. You’re supposed to debate, that’s part of the process, but I’d like Congress to be a little bit more of a think tank. 

One thing that maybe hasn’t changed, but I certainly have become more acutely aware of it — the country is being too dominated and manipulated by agencies [run by] unelected people. They should be coming to us with their ideas, and if they’re good ideas, we put them into law. 

I’m not an attorney, but I took civics and I know the process. And I know that our country started with just three agencies: State, Treasury and War. 

Q: What’s next for you?

A: What’s next is uncertain, except for spending more time with my wife and kids. I hope I can continue to grow from all the things I’ve learned here, and be able to engage in national security issues, maybe still be involved with things where I might need a security clearance, to be engaged with health things, and then some local things at home in the district. 

Q: Looking back on your congressional career, what stands out?

A: One that means a lot to me is the VA MISSION Act. I was chair of [the Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee], and we had people who had long waits for care, people who had to go a long way for care. I remember a guy who [was told to] drive 100-some miles to get his cataracts taken care of. He said, “I’m 85, I shouldn’t be driving to Dayton. Why can’t I go to the guy down the street?”

That was a big deal to me. I probably am one of the few people who has been both a provider and a patient in private practice, in the VA system, and in the military health system.

Q: After the baseball shooting in 2017, you rushed to help Steve Scalise and gave medical aid on the field. 

A: People ask, what is one of your most treasured moments? And without a doubt, it was when Steve Scalise walked back on the floor [three months after the shooting]. 

You saw Congress come together, and you saw Paul Ryan stand up on the floor of the House and say, “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” I’m afraid that sentiment has drifted.

Q: What other moments stand out?

A: One of the saddest things since I’ve been here is to lose my friend Jackie Walorski, who was killed in a car wreck. She and I came in together [in 2013], sat next to each other on Armed Services and VA, both went to Ways and Means — and “Walorski” and “Wenstrup” were right together on the board even. 

But at the same time, some tragedies brought some people even closer. Andy Barr’s a close friend, and he lost his wife, and I said, “Why don’t you move in with me?” Because we had a place [in Washington] until my kids became school age, and then my family was going to be back home all the time. And so I said, “We’ve got room.”

A lot of your friendships here are transitional or transactional. But I made a lot of really good friends here that will stick even after I leave. 

Q: You have Anthony Fauci set to testify before the pandemic select subcommittee on June 3. What do you say to people who think this is a fishing expedition? 

A: I wouldn’t call it a fishing expedition. It is an investigation that we’ve been tasked to do, and so I do get bothered when people say that. 

What are the lessons learned? What took place and why? And if there are things we can correct, then that’s what we can correct. I have not mentioned political party one time. We’re looking for facts. At the end, there may be some conjecture based on facts, some conclusions made based on facts. But we’re being professional. 

Q: Do you feel like Democrats and Republicans might be able to reach some consensus about COVID? 

A: I’d like to think that. That was my goal, but unfortunately, I’m not sensing that.

We will never know the true answer, because China’s not being cooperative. And neither are some of our people, by and large. Like HHS, why do we have to subpoena documents from HHS as Congress? Going back to the over-authorities of the agencies that think they are “We the People” — they’re not. We are the representatives of “We the People.” 

As I’ve said throughout, this thing was novel. Everyone was scared. No one knew what to do. You can make a decision you think is right, and later say, “Well, it turns out it wasn’t.” And that’s fair. But if you’re not turning over documents, what are you hiding?

Quick hits

Best friend across the aisle? Jimmy Panetta is definitely one of them. We served on Armed Services together and Ways and Means.

One thing your constituents don’t know about you? I don’t feel there’s much left. I practiced for 27 years, seeing hundreds of patients a week, and you get these relationships throughout your community. But you could probably ask the Cincinnati Enquirer about how I look like George Clooney and was nominated for “Dr. McDreamy.” 

In politics, can the ends justify the means? I hate when I see that happen. I see people getting crushed, their lives ruined, like Carter Page. They lied to get a warrant on this guy who never did anything. 

What surprised you most about being in Congress? The sacrifice so many people are willing to make to be in this job. And how busy it is. I feel like I get here and I’m in a blender, and the weekends just pour me out. 

Least popular opinion? Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. And there should be redemption for some people in this world, from time to time. I think we’ve lost that.

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