Here’s Who’s Keeping a Watch on Trillions in Coronavirus Aid

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Congress has unleashed nearly $3 trillion in stimulus to contain the economic damage from the coronavirus, and it has also let loose several watchdogs to police the flood of spending. They are supposed to monitor whether the money makes its way as intended to struggling airlines, corporations, main street businesses and hospitals.

Inspired by the oversight mechanisms put in place after the financial system bailout following the 2008 crash, lawmakers created several accountability panels with overlapping responsibilities to follow the billions that the federal government is doling out on a daily basis.

The work of the panels is just beginning. Here’s who is responsible for what.

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Taking In the Big Picture

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee has the most sweeping responsibility in accounting for how taxpayer funds are spent and the place where the public will be able to find out the most about where their money is going. It oversees the entirety of spending for the pandemic response, including loans and grants to corporations, the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, lending by the U.S. Federal Reserve, money for airlines, funding for hospitals and health providers and any other stimulus measures Congress may pass.

Who’s leading it: The panel is made up of 20 inspectors general from across the federal government. Robert A. Westbrooks, a former inspector general, is the executive director.

Strengths: The committee has the broadest scope of any of the oversight entities overseeing spending related to the coronavirus pandemic and it has wide latitude to conduct its oversight -- including being able to subpoena those inside and outside the government for testimony.

Weaknesses: President Donald Trump has sought to limit the PRAC’s authority, which he says infringes on his executive power. The president appoints the inspectors general that serve on the panel, meaning he can effectively oust them at will. In March, Trump removed then-acting Department of Defense Inspector General Glenn Fine, who had been appointed to serve as PRAC chairman. When Trump removed Fine from his role at the Pentagon, he became ineligible to serve on the committee.

Public disclosures: The PRAC’s publicwebsite is already live. PRAC is also required to notify Congress and executive branch about problems, in addition to twice-a-year reports.

The Big Business Bailout Investigator

The Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery is responsible for oversight of the $500 billion bailout fund for businesses. Operating inside the Treasury Department, the SIGPR will scrutinize and track the loans and transactions made by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The key programs include $454 billion in backstops to lending programs through the Federal Reserve, as well as money for airlines and defense companies.

Who’s leading it: Trump’s pick to lead this effort, Brian Miller, is awaiting Senate confirmation. Until then, it’s unclear just how wide or deep his work might be.

Strengths: Like the PRAC, the special inspector general has broader subpoena powers than is typically granted to government watchdogs. The inspector general can request documents and information from across the federal government and is required to quickly report to Congress if any agency is withholding or delaying information, a provision that Trump objected to when he signed the stimulus bill creating the special inspector general position.

Weaknesses: Democrats are skeptical that Miller will be independent and impartial. He has years of experience as the inspector general for the General Services Administration, but has most recently served as a White House lawyer, including participating in Trump’s impeachment defense. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that Trump chose “the wrong type of person” for this position.

Public disclosures: The SIGPR is required to submit quarterly reports to Congress, starting within 60 days of the watchdog’s confirmation.

The Watchdog on Capitol Hill

The Congressional Oversight Commission is five-member panel appointed by congressional leaders that will oversee a half-trillion dollars in virus-related spending through the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, and a portion of aid to the airline industry.

Who’s leading it: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have not yet announced their joint selection for the head of the commission. The other four members are:

  • Representative French Hill, an Arkansas Republican
  • Bharat Ramamurti, a former top staffer to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
  • Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican
  • Representative Donna Shalala, a Florida Democrat

Strengths: The panel is a product of bipartisan negotiations and contains respected members of both parties, which could give their findings credibility across the political spectrum.

Weaknesses: The panel itself does not have subpoena powers but can rely on existing oversight committees in Congress if it needs to fight for documents from the Trump administration. However, Congress itself has struggled to get the executive branch to comply with information requests and subpoenas -- a battle that’s playing out in the courts, indicating the commission might have the same difficulty.

Public disclosures: The panel’s first report is due in mid-May, after which it will provide monthly updates.

Others Keeping Watch

Government Accountability Office: The GAO already has broad authority to audit federal agencies and programs – and the $2.2 trillion stimulus package gives it even more latitude and resources to do so.

The GAO has already initiated inquiries related to the national stockpile and distribution of medical equipment, nursing home infections, loans to small businesses and the economic impact payments. It’s required to issue reports every 60 days, with the first one due in late June, but also it also issues reports on its findings on a rolling basis.

House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis: Pelosi created the new committee, operating under the umbrella of the House Oversight Committee, to examine coronavirus spending and look for waste, fraud or mismanagement. It’s led by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, and unlike the Congressional Oversight Commission, has subpoena power.

The panel is technically bipartisan though House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy hasn’t yet appointed any members and says he will wait to do so until he sees what the panel will do. The California Republican has called it duplicative and politically motivated.

The Executive Branch Report: The White House also has its own venue to disclose its views about the economic rescue measures. Trump’s top economic advisers, including Mnuchin, Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought and Council of Economic Advisers acting Chairman Tomas J. Philipson are required to issue quarterly reports that detail the impact of the coronavirus response on employment, estimated economic growth, and data about affected industries.

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