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Dancing Around Oversight

Terry H. Schwadron

July 20, 2020

That Congressional bugaboo about oversight of federal spending looks bound to gum up any useful attempts at bipartisanship towards a new overall coronavirus aid bill promised for consideration as soon as the next week.

Actually, reports have been suggesting that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, now favors a full-blown financial aid package — one he suggests will be difficult in an election year but that will be both sizeable and the last. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, has been impatiently awaiting Senate action on a $3 trillion, fourth package that the House actually passed in May.

The bill and the inevitable debate about its contents loom even more important since the first three are running out of time, and unemployment checks will stop, unpaid rent checks and evictions in. many states are building, small businesses are either still closed or being forced to close anew amid rising coronavirus contagion spreads across 43 states.

Republican senators have been vocal in not wanting to pass more money that they argue are allowing people not to take jobs where they are available, or that they want to set much lower caps for individual stimulus checks. Also, at issue is an insistence by the White House on an unrelated payroll tax cut that will undercut Social Security and Medicare, which doesn’t seem to have wide support.

But from the first three bills passed, there remain a host of issues that the Donald Trump administration has either refused to acknowledge, or has resisted oversight by Congress or independent inspectors general, whom they have dismissed, or has even spent all the money it has to date.

So, as the Senate starts consideration, look for this oversight to be a key issue.

What’s Happened?

There have been numerous journalistic efforts to track the money spent to date under the three programs. Under the CARES bill, the first, there were widespread reports that checks meant for individuals either went awry, including some to dead people.

Examination of the list of 600,000 businesses that received money under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), an initiative designed to extend forgivable loans to small businesses during the pandemic to keep workers on the payroll, showed that businesses owned or associated with a dozen members of Congress, lobbyists and others with connections got sizeable help.

By Trump order, there has been no accounting for grants to large organizations or industries, including airlines.

In passing the three bills, Congress set up for oversight of spending by a

special inspector general for pandemic recovery (SIGPR), tasked with overseeing coronavirus spending; the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, an interagency panel designed to promote cooperation among the various inspectors general, and a special Congressional Oversight Commission.

For various reasons, they haven’t functioned. Trump dismissed the inspector general who was lined up to take his role, the congressional panel ,bogged down in politics, never named a leader, or his administration has simply asserted that Trump alone is the overseer for $2 trillion in COVID spending –an expression of his imperialist viewpoint as president. One contributing factor was the legislation itself, which did not fully spell out who was supposed to do what.

Basically, we have no idea at this point that all the money has been spent (amid reports that it has not) or who got it and whether these recipients all kept their employees on the payroll — a question that was raised by the whopping numbers of people filing for unemployment benefits.

You can understand policy debates over whether it is better to pay supports to businesses, as happened in Europe during the height of pandemic spread, or to individuals, or provide forgivable loans for the promise if not fact of keeping people on the payroll — and, importantly, on employer-paid health benefits in the midst of disease.

But we should not be arguing about knowing where the money went, should we? How do we know what is needed if we don’t understand what we did already?

PPP Problems

The PPP program has drawn more than its share of headlines. Among them:

— A recent report published by Public Citizen finds that at least 40 lobbyists with ties to the president have successfully secured billions in aid for their clients — and several lobbyists may be violating President Donald Trump’s own executive order on ethics in the process. They included Trump fund-raisers, members of Trump’s transition team and inaugural committee, and those lobbying for COVID-19 aid on behalf of at least 150 clients.

— Another found that at 82 Washington lobbyists received money.

Forbes reported that businesses tied to 20 members of Congress received emergency loans quickly under the first tranche of PPP money, with more Republicans than Democrats named. A family business connected with Secretary of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Senator McConnell’s wife, received funds. Then again, so did a winery that California Gov. Gavin Newsom co-owned but put in trust.

— Bloomberg News reported that data errors related to PPP funding have raised questions. The article cited a Tennessee business owner who was listed in government documents as having been approved for a $5 million loan even though he only received $3,700.

Basically, there is a lot of dissatisfaction to overcome. Liberals want the money to go to those who need it most, conservatives think the money is keeping people from going to work.

It’s a mess.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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