The Cares Act directed $850 million for food banks, but less than $300 million has been sent out so far, according to Democratic staff members on the Senate Appropriations Committee. That’s despite unprecedented demand, with the number of people served at food banks increasing by more than 50 percent from a year ago, according to a recent survey by the nonprofit group Feeding America.
Similarly, Congress appropriated $9 billion in March for the Community Development Block Grant and Emergency Solutions Grant programs, which fund health facilities, child care centers, and services for seniors and homeless people, among other things. Only about $250 million of that money has been obligated.
In another example, $100 million dedicated specifically to help nursing homes certify compliance standards for issues like infection control remains unspent two months after it became law as part of the Cares Act. Another $100 million to help ensure access to broadband for Americans in rural parts of the country also remains unspent.
A separate $100 million appropriation to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency purchase personal protective equipment for firefighters also hasn’t been spent. Additionally, less than half the $16 billion Congress dedicated over four separate pieces of legislation to bulking up critical medical supplies in the Strategic National Stockpile has been spent, according to the Democrats’ calculations.
Democrats are not alleging deliberate foot-dragging by the Trump administration, even though a political fight has developed over how quickly to act on the next relief bill. Instead, Democrats say the federal bureaucracy is not rising to the challenge and acting with the urgency that a crisis of unprecedented magnitude demands.
“In preparing for and responding to this pandemic, status quo bureaucracy is not satisfactory. It is clear evidence that President Trump has failed to meet this urgent challenge, and it is up to Congress to act,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “The Trump administration’s failure to get these resources out the door and into our communities is not a sufficient reason for slow-walking the next, desperately needed emergency relief bill.”
Independent analysts say government agencies simply may be struggling to handle enormous new demands placed on them, especially with large portions of their workforce abruptly forced to adjust to working from home.
“When you have a great deal of funds to try to get out quickly, the system just only has a certain amount it can do,” said Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee. “I don’t think there’s any dastardly effort here trying to slow anything down. It’s just a simple matter of, there’s only so much a system can do at one time.”
Overall, about half of the more than $3 trillion approved by Congress over four separate coronavirus bills has been obligated or committed, according to calculations by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
The slow movement on other aid funding cuts across the government, illustrating the sudden challenge to agencies that in some areas have dwindled in size under the Trump administration. Programs administrated by the Pentagon, the Agriculture Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Health and Human Services are among those that have been slow to get off the ground.
Agency spokespeople defended their responses, offering a variety of explanations for the status of funds and in several cases insisting they’re moving as quickly as they reasonably can. In a couple of cases they disputed the Democrats’ calculations. Trump administration officials and the president himself have vigorously defended their response to the pandemic overall, predicting an economic revival as the nation begins to reopen, especially with Friday’s unexpectedly positive jobs report.
“This shows that what we’ve been doing is right,” Trump said Friday as he hailed the unexpected drop in unemployment.
Other parts of Congress’s relief legislation have moved more quickly, though an enormous $500 billion Treasury fund has also been slow to get off the ground. Money in a new small-business loan program sped out the door after its creation in the Cares Act, despite a number of glitches. The Treasury Department moved quickly to get stimulus checks to more than 150 million American households. Some large grants to nursing homes, state governments and hospitals have been delivered, although questions have been raised about the sums and speed in those areas, too.
Leahy and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), along with other Democratic senators, raised concerns about the pace of Pentagon spending in a recent letter to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. Among other issues, they raised the question of Defense Production Act spending. Democrats say only $180 million has been obligated out of $1 billion Congress provided to increase the industrial capacity of U.S. manufacturers to produce supplies such as personal protective equipment.
“Lacking further information from the department on its plans for these funds, we are unable to answer simple questions such as whether the U.S. government is doing everything in its power to address shortfalls in supplies which are not only needed at this moment, but also in preparation for a predicted second wave of coronavirus infections,” the senators wrote.
In a statement responding to the senators’ letter, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, said the Pentagon has been transparent about its use of funds. The agency submitted a spending plan to Congress late last week, ahead of a deadline set in the Cares Act.
“The Department remains committed to legally and responsibly executing these funds on the highest priorities to protect our military and their families and safeguard our national security capabilities. As we have seen, this is an evolving and dynamic situation where priorities and requirements change, which is why it is so important that we remain faithful and accountable stewards of the taxpayer dollar,” Hoffman said.
“The Department continues to aggressively identify critical Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III investment opportunities to enhance capacity and throughput of our domestic industrial supply chain, enabling security and resiliency.”
The Housing and Urban Development department, which is responsible for Community Development Block Grants and Emergency Solutions Grants, said in a statement that HUD is in the process of reviewing and executing plans submitted by grantees “according to an unprecedented expedited process to speed up the time from action plan review to money-in-their-hands. This is the fastest the process has ever been.”
The agency said it was “well within the allowable time frame” in executing the funds. It said it had reserved funding for the first wave of grants 39 days after the Cares Act was signed into law, which it said was “a record.”
Addressing the slow start in the rural broadband program, USDA said: “The application window for the ReConnect Program CARES Act funding closed on April 15, 2020. USDA anticipates publicly announcing CARES Act ReConnect Program investments in the coming weeks.”
As for the food bank money, USDA contended all of the funds had been distributed to states, “much of which is being passed on to foodbanks and the feeding networks on the front lines. … As orders come in from states, USDA is working to rapidly procure over $600 million in food. Expedited deliveries are expected to begin in June.”
Kate Leone, chief government relations officer at Feeding America, said in an interview that she did not fault USDA, because the procurement process for getting food to food banks is always slow, partly to ensure that appropriate guardrails are in place. “It’s just a convoluted process … it’s just that for an emergency it does slow things down,” Leone said.
The Strategic National Stockpile is administered by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS, where a spokesperson said that while only $6.8 billion has been obligated to date — less than half of Congress’s $16 billion allocation — “the quantities of supplies purchased far exceeds what was or is currently available from manufacturers and distributors. There simply is not any more product to buy without taking supplies away from the health-care delivery partners that need it most right now. ASPR is continuing to identify opportunities and award contracts for delivery of product over time to replenish the SNS, but to date, the limited supplies that have been produced and delivered to the SNS are being deployed to support states with immediate needs.”
HHS said it has been “transparent that more supplies are needed,” and said planning is underway “to achieve a capacity to meet 90 days of need,” which will require a combination of actions to increase the supply of personal protective equipment. The administration has developed a plan to restructure the Strategic National Stockpile “implementing lessons learned from recent pandemics. Our next generation SNS will be improved.”
As for the nursing home funds, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has identified $80 million that it said would be allocated “based on performance-based metrics” to help states increase infection control surveys of their nursing homes.
The $100 million to assist firefighters is set to be released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency based on a competitive grant program. Fire departments, emergency medical services organizations and state fire training academies were eligible to apply. The application period closed May 15, and FEMA said it was working to review the applications and expedite the funding.
Aaron Gregg and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.