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Senate Democrats urge White House to quickly nominate new inspector general for coronavirus programs

President Trump on Friday took a step that could weaken an inspector general’s independence, but Democrats said strong oversight is needed to ensure accountability

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said in a letter that President Trump must nominate the new inspector general “without delay.” (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

Three senior Senate Democrats are asking Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to honor the terms of a new coronavirus law that establishes independent oversight to monitor the Trump administration’s handling of a $500 billion funding program, according to a copy of a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Shortly after enacting the law on Friday, President Trump took a step to curb the program’s oversight, kicking off a battle between Congress and the White House over how the law would be implemented and scrutinized.

Mnuchin brokered many of the terms of the spending deal with Democrats last week, and in their letter to him they expressed alarm about Trump’s immediate signing statement, which some interpreted as an attempt to weaken the reporting requirements of a new inspector general. The letter, signed by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), also said Trump must “without delay” nominate the new inspector general to oversee and probe the funding.

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The new Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, which the law stipulates will be nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate, is tasked with monitoring how the Treasury Department extends loans and loan guarantees to businesses, among other things.

The three Democrats point out Mnuchin “personally agreed” to the new oversight provisions and insist that he carry them out. Treasury officials this week are now working quickly to try to implement the new law, but White House officials have not taken any public steps toward nominating an inspector general.

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“You, on behalf of the Administration, negotiated and agreed to the scope and terms of the SIGPR authority, both generally to Congress and to each of us personally,” the letter states. “This oversight authority was critical for gaining support for your request for over $500 billion to aid struggling companies, states, municipalities, and other troubled entities. … The SIGPR’s unfettered operation is not only a legal necessity, but also a condition you personally agreed to — SIGPR’s structure is your structure, and it imperative that you defend it.”

A Treasury spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment. It is unclear what leverage or recourse congressional Democrats would have should Mnuchin or Trump not honor the terms of the agreement, beyond filing a lawsuit in court that could take months to be resolved.

On Friday, Trump released a signing statement challenging the constitutionality of the law’s requirement that the new inspector general notify Congress immediately if the administration “unreasonably” withholds information requested by investigators. The White House signing statement said the administration will not allow the inspector general to inform Congress without “presidential supervision,” calling it a violation of executive branch authority.

“I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [inspector general] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause, Article II, section 3,” the White House statement said.