No Oversight, More Problems

Terry H. Schwadron

May 5, 2020

Here’s an easy formula for federal aid: No oversight means more problems.

We are finding out anew and repeatedly that our systems are not built for help. Rather they are built to deny help, through complicated forms, through inefficient use of outmoded technology that has been fed too much bad information to prove effective, through gotcha clauses aimed primarily at rooting out fraud.

We all joke about bureaucratic language and “legalese.” But when it comes to this day when we’re trying to hit the gas on getting aid out there, or to make it easier for people to vote from safety, or to solve supply-line jams, it is exactly that bureaucratic mess that seems to be keeping us from achieving our goals.

Of course, just understanding that dilemma is an achievement in itself because it means that government officials are looking beyond slogans to actually solving the problem to a degree necessary to make the governmental plumbing work.

As one headline read this week, a tweet is not going to fix food supply lines.

Add a political layer over all this and you have the makings of a bureaucratic mess that refuses to unkink because of perceived partisan blame.

Through all this, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow senators to launch oversight hearings about how any of this aid is supposed to work because he thinks his job is to protect the reputation of Donald Trump.

Bah, Humbug, as a Dickens character would say at this point.

The bureaucracy

In recent days, The New York Times has reported on bureaucratic misdirection in state unemployment processes aimed at keeping cheaters out rather than inviting millions of newly jobless into the aid systems. The Washington Post adds that Republican governors in particular are warning that they could strip workers of unemployment if they don’t return to work when companies call them. Food stamp recipients in almost all the states are barred from using online purchases, sending sick and disabled folks into the markets just as governors are asking them to stay home.

Oh, and Donald Trump got rid of the inspector general who found problems in recognizing the need for medical supplies, just as he had dismissed those inspectors general who had been tasked to look at financial aid packages for businesses.

Huffington Post had a report that native tribes who were supposed to get $8 billion in direct emergency relief from the $2-trillion CARES Act, the first coronavirus stimulus bill, have yet to see a dime because the Treasury Department doesn’t know how to deal with tribal areas and apparently isn’t listening to advice. And, there is a federal court challenge in Alaska to aiding tribal nations altogether, halting aid to 754 tribal areas nationally.

Instead, coronavirus cases continue to rise unimpeded and inadequately addressed in tribal areas across four Western states.

And another four million jobless filed for unemployment claims even as states were starting to lift stay-at-home orders, and forcing workers back to factories that may operate without safety procedures in place. Indeed, the key issue in Congress to more aid is a looming promise of liability from any lawsuit related to worker or customer illness for companies — whether they have acted to protect them or not.

What would it take for our country to be able to just look at a problem without having to see blame first, without having to retreat to partisan quarters just to make the trains run just a little closer to on time.

After all, the votes on the CARES act and those that followed were practically unanimous. Why should there be misgivings about finding out why checks are going to dead people, or why there are so many fraudulent thefts of direct deposits to accounts of income taxpayers, or why there are kinks in the farm-to-hungry chains?

The Liability Issue

It turns out that one of the things that kept 3M in Minnesota from churning out the needed N95 protective masks was a needed assurance from government that they would be held blameless if the masks did not work. And so, Vice President Mike Pence delivered on that promise — because we were in an emergency and people are dying.

Roll ahead a month, and now we are talking about re-opening the economy either because we believe that it Is medically justified in most states willing to roll the corona dice or because they subscribe to the thinking that it’s okay if we have some death so long as we don’t have public debt and, God forbid, government Rules to keep us home. Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death, as the parodied version goes.

On cue, enters Senate Leader McConnell: “Imagine you are a businessman thinking about reopening, and you’ve heard that the trial lawyers all over the country are sharpening their pencils getting ready to sue you, claiming that you didn’t engage in proper distancing or other issues related to health and safety.”

More realistically, imagine that the company opens — and does absolutely nothing to protect workers or consumers. This administration has responded by telling OSHA to mostly stand down, and issue some guidelines that employers are free to ignore.

How about we hold a hearing or two and find out why.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer