But while the Treasury Department has rushed to implement some stimulus programs, such as sending $1,200 checks to 140 million households and mobilizing a small-business lending program, other congressionally approved assistance funds are off to a much slower start. The Congressional Oversight Commission, a new body, released a report on Monday finding that the Treasury Department had spent very little from a $500 billion fund created by the Cares Act in March to help businesses and local governments, even though many of these entities have asked for immediate help.
Senators are expected to press Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell about this during a hearing Tuesday morning.
“If it doesn’t get out in a timely fashion, it’s not going to achieve the goal behind its creation,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), a member of the new commission.
This tension was evident on Monday, as the Dow Jones industrial average rallied 911.95 points, or 3.9 percent, on optimism that a vaccine could be within reach and the economy is set for a rebound. But most of the recent economic data continues to show an economy facing extreme strains, particularly regarding unemployment and near-term growth.
In Tuesday’s hearing, Powell plans to say that the nation is in the midst of an economic crisis “worse than any recession since World War II,” according to prepared remarks, and that the central bank’s “bold steps” have helped ensure American families and businesses can borrow cheaply so they don’t go bankrupt before the economy can safely reopen.
The $500 billion Treasury fund created by the Cares Act is supposed to be used to help prop up large segments of the U.S. economy, including airlines, small and midsized businesses, larger corporations, and cities and states. The Congressional Oversight Commission was created by the Cares Act to oversee how that $500 billion fund is being used, and the group issued its first report Monday, even though it still doesn’t have a chair. That person must be appointed jointly by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
However, the commission has four other members who were appointed individually by congressional leaders, and they produced a 17-page report on Monday that mostly contains questions about how the Treasury fund is going to function.
The report describes the lending facilities the Treasury Department has created to operate through the Federal Reserve and says only one of them has received funding. The Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility is supposed to purchase corporate debt and has received $37.5 billion.
The $500 billion Treasury fund also set aside $46 billion to make loans and loan guarantees, largely to the airline industry. None of that money has been disbursed. Many firms have said other parts of the Cares Act have helped them remain in business, particularly a separate fund for smaller firms, but a growing number of businesses, particularly those that rely on direct customer interaction, have closed and are not expected to reopen. Others have expressed frustration about the changing terms of government aid programs.
The Treasury Department has announced five lending facilities to disburse other portions of the money, including a Main Street Lending Program that is supposed to help small and medium-size businesses. Lawmakers have been particularly focused on this program.
The report describes how even before any money from the Main Street program has been lent, the terms of the program already have evolved. The changes include increasing the size of loans, eliminating a requirement that companies have to attest they need money “due to the exigent circumstances presented by” the coronavirus, and modifying a requirement that companies make “reasonable efforts” to maintain payroll and retain employees during the term of a loan. Instead, they will be required to make “commercially reasonable efforts” to do so.
Powell is expected to face tough questions about why the Fed has yet to launch the Main Street Lending Program and why the central bank recently altered the terms of that program to aid companies with up to 15,000 employees, a move some Democrats say mainly benefits struggling oil and gas firms.
Powell and Mnuchin have said they are working rapidly to create the programs as quickly as possible, pointing to the unprecedented speed with which they have already directed hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to businesses and households. But a number of programs remain in flux.
Ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, top Banking Committee Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) wrote to Powell and Mnuchin urging them to avoid the mistakes of the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed to help small businesses but ended up getting tapped by larger ones, and to be transparent.
“The decisions you make will define the effectiveness of not only the MSLP, but also other lending programs that you develop,” Brown wrote. “I urge you to consider fully how you can best serve small and medium sized businesses and their workers and states and municipalities.”
A Municipal Liquidity Facility is also supposed to loan money to state and local governments, an issue that has been the topic of intense debate on Capitol Hill and at the White House. The Cares Act allocated a separate $150 billion pot for state and local governments, but governors and Democratic lawmakers have been petitioning for more. Treasury “intends to invest $35 billion” in the Municipal Liquidity Facility, “which can support up to $500 billion in lending,” the report says. But none of the money has gone out yet.
The report presented the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve with questions about risk to taxpayers and how the agencies will assess the success or failure of its programs. It also specifically asks when the Main Street Lending Program and Municipal Liquidity Facility will begin to function.
“I’m concerned about it taking weeks to get it up and functioning,” said Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), another member of the Oversight Commission. He said he hoped Tuesday’s hearing would be an opportunity for Powell and Mnuchin to “tell us what you need to do to put them into action.”
The Treasury Department declined to comment on the report.
The report underscores the wide discretion Treasury has in using $500 billion in taxpayer money as it sees fit. Congressional Democrats including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who headed a similar oversight commission after the 2008 financial crisis bailout, have criticized the money as a “slush fund” for corporations.
Aides to Pelosi and McConnell had no update Monday on when that appointment will be made. They appear to have made little progress toward filling the job in the nearly eight weeks since the Cares Act passed. One potential candidate, former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chair Sheila Bair, publicly took herself out of the running earlier this month after her name was floated, saying she was too busy with other responsibilities.
The Congressional Oversight Commission is one of several overlapping oversight mechanisms created by the $2 trillion Cares Act and separately by Congress, all of which have gotten off to a slow start. The Cares Act also created a special inspector general position to oversee the $500 billion Treasury fund, but the Senate has not yet confirmed the man named to fill that role.
The Treasury fund is just one component of the Cares Act.
Mnuchin and other senior officials have worked aggressively to implement the legislation’s Paycheck Protection Program, which is being run jointly with the Small Business Administration. That program is not covered by the $500 billion fund that was the focus of the commission’s report on Monday.
In an example of the constantly shifting playing field around the various programs and their implementation, Trump on Monday met with restaurant executives who pressed him to extend the length of small-business loans available under the PPP from eight weeks to 24 weeks. Trump sounded open to the change, although it’s something Congress would likely need to approve.
The Treasury Department also has sent out checks to individual Americans, and the Cares Act provided for an extension of unemployment benefits. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus hit.
Heather Long contributed to this report.