Unfortunately, even as problems with the relief bill’s execution mount, virtually none of those oversight provisions is anywhere close to functional, partly due to deliberate sabotage.
Needless to say, in a republic built on checks and balances, independent oversight of executive branch activity is necessary. That independent oversight is especially necessary when the executive branch is tasked with spending an unprecedentedly large fiscal relief package, totaling more than $2 trillion of taxpayer money.
It’s especially, especially necessary when much of that $2 trillion comprises completely new, built-from-scratch, never-before-attempted government programs, prone to glitches and hiccups even when implemented by the most competent administration.
And it’s especially, especially, especially necessary when that program is being managed by an administration riddled with incompetence, cronyism and political vendettas, and led by a president who has refused to rule out benefiting from the program personally.
Congress dealt with this imperative primarily by creating three separate, independent oversight entities, with overlapping remits: (1) a new, special inspector general there solely to monitor how the treasury secretary distributes $500 billion in aid; (2) a Congressional Oversight Commission, which scrutinizes the Treasury Department’s and the Federal Reserve’s implementation of the law; and (3) a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, made up of inspectors general from different executive branch agencies. This last body has the broadest jurisdiction and will monitor any past or future coronavirus response measures across government.
The sabotage began as soon as President Trump signed the bill.
In a signing statement, Trump said he wouldn’t abide by the law’s requirement that the new special Treasury watchdog notify Congress immediately if the administration “unreasonably” withholds information. Which, considering the administration’s record of stonewalling, seems quite likely to happen.
It’s a bad sign when a president signals his intention to obstruct oversight before there’s even anything to oversee. But it’s even worse when the president continues to obfuscate oversight once there’s already exhaustive evidence of screw-ups.
Last week, reports began to gush in about problems with the small-business lending program, delays in how quickly stimulus checks could be sent to households, and other issues with how funds were being spent (or, in some cases, not being spent at all).
Announcing a controversial pick for that special Treasury watchdog post, a loyalist who’d brusquely rebuffed requests for documents during impeachment. This candidate seems unlikely to get confirmed by the Senate anytime soon.
Then, this week, Trump decided to derail the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee — that is, the oversight body with the broadest remit.
He did this by demoting the inspector general who had been appointed to chair the oversight panel, thereby disqualifying him from serving on the panel at all. This action was separate from Trump’s firing of a different inspector general a few days earlier, and his veiled threats made against yet a third inspector general this week. Talk about a chilling effect.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have appointed only one of the five required members for the Congressional Oversight Commission.
Staffers on the Hill told me this is due less to deliberate foot-dragging than ongoing vetting and negotiations. Still, these appointments need to move more quickly, especially since Trump continues to kneecap Congress’s other oversight mechanisms.
Moreover, in the next coronavirus bill being hashed out, Congress needs to add more measures to ensure accountability for how remaining taxpayer funds are spent.
Principal among those is greater job security for inspectors general — whether confirmed or acting, and right now the executive branch is rife with “actings.” Under current law, the president can remove or demote these watchdogs without cause. That needs to change.
“You can’t expect any IG to do their job aggressively when they have to be looking over their shoulder constantly,” says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.
Second, Congress needs to plug loopholes in the law that allow the president himself to benefit from bailout funds. Lawmakers only attached such prohibitions to bailout funds intended for larger businesses, not those that could be used for the “small businesses” such as Trump’s individual hotels.
And third, they need to appropriate more funding for government divisions that handle agency document requests. That’s so that even during a crisis, when agencies are understandably overwhelmed, they can still be responsive to document requests from inspectors general and Congress, and Freedom of Information Act requests from the media and outside “good government” groups. No excuses for stonewalling.
As I’ve said before: We want money to be spent quickly, but we also want it to be spent responsibly. The way things are going, we risk doing neither.