Accountability Provisions For Relief Package Are Off To A Slow Start

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on April 22, 2020 8:30 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Last month, Congress passed that massive coronavirus response package worth upwards of $2 trillion. It came with strings attached to oversight mechanisms that were meant to monitor the spending, but the Trump administration and Congress have been slow to implement that oversight. NPR's Tim Mak is here to talk about who is watching over this enormous amount of money.

Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: All right. So oversight mechanisms - so what were they? What were written into that first relief package to make sure that the spending was being tracked?

MAK: So that package set out three oversight bodies - a new inspector general for that $500 billion in Treasury Department funds, a congressional oversight commission to separately oversee those funds and a committee of inspectors general. They were to get together and oversee the entire $2 trillion package. On top of that, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a new committee to oversee all of that money as well. Craig Holman works with the government watchdog Public Citizen.

CRAIG HOLMAN: None are working at this point, and billions of dollars is flying out the window as we speak.

MAK: So this is a pretty common opinion among government watchdogs right now.

KELLY: It's a pretty depressing one too. Billions of dollars flying out the window does not sound good. But can you be specific? What have the issues actually been?

MAK: So yeah, let's start with that congressional oversight commission. The chair needs to be agreed upon by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And they haven't agreed, so that hasn't been fully staffed yet. And the special committee that Pelosi set up - Congress hasn't been in to approve it. Here's Holman again.

HOLMAN: The Republicans in Congress believe it's a redundant oversight agency and are not inclined to approve it, so without unanimous consent while Congress is in recess, that committee will not be operating.

MAK: The president's played a role as well. He's essentially stated when he signed the pandemic relief package that he views some of these oversight measures as more of a suggestion than a requirement.

KELLY: Well - and as I recall, he also fired the inspector general - the one who had been picked to oversee the pandemic response fund, right?

MAK: That's right. I mean, here's a critical point. These oversight mechanisms are strong in theory as written in the law. But in practice, they've been slow to be implemented. Liz Hempowicz works at the Project on Government Oversight, and she says this is an absolutely critical time.

LIZ HEMPOWICZ: Oversight after the fact is helpful, but it certainly isn't as helpful as oversight after the fact plus oversight while money is going out the door.

MAK: Here's one example. She noted that nearly $350 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses have already been exhausted, and oversight hasn't really even gotten off the ground yet.

KELLY: So what is next? And how will the public be able to keep an eye on the government?

MAK: Well, the law lays out some deadlines, and some of those deadlines are coming up soon. The inspectors general overseeing this $2 trillion package - they need to put up a website this weekend and appoint an executive director to oversee some of these funds, for example. Bharat Ramamurti is a member of the congressional commission overseeing Treasury funds. He says they'll soon get started.

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: We will meet to discuss questions about staffing the commission and working towards releasing our first report, which is due in early May.

MAK: But to sum it all up, the problems with getting oversight off the ground are the unprecedented health crisis, Congress being out of town and the administration's pushback.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Tim Mak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.