Terry H. Schwadron
June 13, 2020
When coronavirus hit, Congress moved in strange union fashion to okay four bills pumping tax money to individuals, small businesses and industry bailouts.
Fine, it was — and continues to be — an emergency.
It was a lot of money because the problem of shutting down the economy was huge, and everything from paying the rent to keeping planes in the air suddenly was at risk.
But now the Trump administration, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in particular say they won’t say who is getting the dough. They are keeping secret the identities of 4.5 million businesses that took a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
What? That’s my money, and it wasn’t meant for secrecy.
In congressional testimony this week, Mnuchin, told the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship that his department considered that information “proprietary” and “confidential.”
The secrecy extends even to internal auditing attempts at government oversight. The Government Accountability Office, which is supposed to monitor that the disease relief funds are being distributed as intended, says the Treasury has refused to give the agency the names of recipients. In the past, the Small Business Administration has disclosed the names of recipients, and there is no good reason for this to be different.
Unless, of course, there is, because the money has gone out in a way that is slanted somehow by politics or geography or, as we are being reminded anew, by race or other grouping.
Setting Up for Corruption
“Unconscionable, jaw-dropping corruption,” tweeted Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, in response.
That may be going too far, since we don’t know where the money did or did not go, but it is certainly troubling.
One the one hand, the Trump administration signaled early to Congress that it was not interested in sharing any oversight role, arguing that Mnuchin and Trump himself would be providing that oversight. The Republican-majority Senate backed Trump’s play by not insisting on keeping language that required Congressional review.
Trump went further, of course, firing a series of inspectors general, including some who were designated to be part of looking at the government spending of two trillion dollars altogether. That move even angered Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, who is holding up approvals on other Trump appointees as a result.
On a larger basis of course, Trump is resisting oversight altogether. In a new piece for the New York Review of Books, former Director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub outlines the steps Trump has taken to undermine accountability in the federal government. “Before Trump, our nation was admired for its anticorruption mechanisms, and its ethics program was considered the gold standard. No more,” he writes. “Once a model for other nations, we are now an object lesson for them.” He revisits Trump’s efforts to ensure that he is accountable to no one and that his associates are shielded from oversight.
The issue today is about review of spending to keep people and businesses afloat, but it applies as well to handling money for a border wall, on a dozen financial escapades of Cabinet members, on personal ethics and Trump Organization business interests, on pardons and executive actions that favor companies over environmental rules or other policy moves.
The $500 billion
The Paycheck Protection Program distributed more than $500 billion in low-interest and forgivable loans for small businesses. Businesses that receive the loans have several months to defer payments, and the government will forgive large portions of the loans if a business uses the bulk of the money to keep workers on its payroll.
As it has worked out, a first round of these monies went through banks to known customers, and excluded many in the black and brown communities hit hardest by disease. “I can count on one hand — literally on one hand — the number of businesses in my district who have received assistance,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat who represents Harlem and The Bronx after the first round of loans.
A second round reserved an amount for loans through community banks in minority areas.
Lack of oversight prevents knowing whether any of this happened or whether the money went disproportionately to bigger businesses, some of whom, including restaurant chains and the Los Angeles Lakers, gave the money back after learning that they had been given millions.
The point simply is that without oversight, no one but Mnuchin knows how the money has been spent, whether there were inequality issues, whether money ended up in the pockets of pals.
Helping others is an American value, but so, too, is transparency.