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H.R. 6519 (116th): Holding the Chinese Communist Party Accountable for Infecting Americans Act of 2020


Should Americans be able to sue the Chinese government because of covid-19?

Context

The coronavirus that causes covid-19 originated in China, but has caused by far the most deaths in the U.S. Could anybody in the U.S. sue China as a result? Under current law, no. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 generally prevents countries from being sued in U.S. courts.

However, several exceptions have been enacted through the decades. The most prominent enacted in recent years was the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2016, which allows U.S. citizens to sue countries like Saudi Arabia for financing the September 11 attacks. President Obama vetoed the bill, fearing it would jeopardize America’s then-alliance with Saudi Arabia, but his veto was overridden in Congress: the only successful veto override of Obama’s presidency.

What the legislation does

The Holding the Chinese Communist Party Accountable for Infecting Americans Act would permit any American to sue China in federal court because of covid-19.

Technically, the legislation would apply to any country that “intended to deliberately conceal or distort the existence or nature of COVID–19.” In practice, that would almost exclusively mean China, as the legislation’s calling out China by name implies.

One carveout is made, allowing the U.S. court to halt such a lawsuit for up to 180 days if “the Secretary of State certifies that the United States is engaged in good faith discussions with the foreign state defendant… with respect to the resolution of a claim against such a defendant.”

The House version was introduced on April 17 as bill number H.R. 6519, by Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX2). The Senate version is presumably forthcoming and will be sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR).

What supporters say

Supporters argue the legislation would allow the possibility of legal repercussions or economic damages, from the country where the virus originated towards the country which has suffered by far the most deaths as a result.

“By silencing doctors and journalists who tried to warn the world about the coronavirus, the Chinese Communist Party allowed the virus to spread quickly around the globe. Their decision to cover up the virus led to thousands of needless deaths and untold economic harm,” Sen. Cotton said in a press release. “It’s only appropriate that we hold the Chinese government accountable for the damage it has caused.”

“We need to hold the Chinese government accountable for their malicious lies and coverup that allowed the coronavirus to spread across the world. The communist regime expelled journalists, silenced whistleblowers, and withheld vital information that delayed the global response to the pandemic,” Rep. Crenshaw said in a separate press release. “Simply put: their actions cost American lives and livelihoods. This bill will help ensure China’s actions are not without consequences.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that the legislation — and the lawsuits inspired by it — would ignore the actual primary reason the U.S. has been hit so hard: a poor response by the American government, more so than the Chinese government.

“There is an understandable human impulse to assign blame, but — especially in the United States — the contributory negligence evident in many aspects of the Executive Branch’s response makes focusing on China counter-productive at this point,” UC Hastings international law professor Chimène Keitner wrote for Just Security.

“Indeed, a Chinese lawyer recently sued the United States and various U.S. government departments for their alleged ‘cover-up’ of the pandemic,” Keitner noted. “Another Chinese suit seeks compensation for ‘reputational damage done by President Donald Trump’s use of the phrase ‘the Chinese virus’ to describe the coronavirus.’”

Odds of passage

The 2016 Senate vote on the similar Saudi Arabia law passed by 97 to 1, with only former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) opposing. The House vote was also very bipartisan, at 348 to 77. In theory, that may seemingly indicate a bipartisan openness to this similar bill.

In practice, though, the House and Senate versions of this legislation were both introduced by Republicans, and the House version only has Republican cosponsorship. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

Last updated May 4, 2020. View all GovTrack summaries.

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