As $2 trillion in virus aid starts to flow, oversight lags

Congress unleashed about $2 trillion to deal with the coronavirus crisis. So far, only two people are working to oversee how it is spent.

Bharat Ramamurti started out as a watchdog of one, the sole appointee to a five-member Congressional Oversight Commission. The Democratic Senate aide was joined Friday by Republican Rep. French Hill of Arkansas.

That still leaves three vacancies on the oversight panel, even as the Trump administration and Congress begin to pump unprecedented sums into the economy.

Sheltering at home with preschoolers, Ramamurti has been writing letters and taking to Twitter to try and jump-start his work, asking the Trump administration for “detailed and timely information” about coronavirus payments. But he's eager for reinforcements.

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“I’d love to have other members of the committee appointed so we can all do this together,” he said before Hill's appointment. A former aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Ramamurti was appointed April 6 by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. Hill was added to the panel Friday by House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy. Three additional members, including a chairperson, will be appointed by congressional leaders.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are trading suggestions for that lead position.

It's a halting start for the oversight structure built into the coronavirus relief law, which Democrats demanded as a condition for empowering a White House and administration they deeply distrust. The law establishes three different watchdogs, with a fourth being created by House Democrats as part of a multi-pronged effort to prevent fraud and abuse as money starts flowing under the sweeping economic rescue law.

A slow roll-out is typical for Washington, said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, “but this is not a normal circumstance,” with the administration intent on disbursing funds at a rapid clip.

“If oversight is not happening, that’s a problem, because the actual assistance is happening,’’ Bookbinder said.

The oversight structure will be put to the test in the coming weeks, as deadlines arrive for the Trump administration to deliver data and other information to Congress. While the disclosure duties mostly fall to the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, President Donald Trump has set the tone, making clear his disdain for the process.

Trump suggested the oversight provisions were unnecessary and immediately moved to undercut them, saying even as he signed the law that the administration didn’t have to comply with some of them. He then ousted the official named chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a board of inspectors general established to monitor the unprecedented spending. “I am the oversight,” Trump had declared.

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The new committee, made up of inspectors general in the executive branch, is required under the law to have a website tracking the money by the end of the month, but that may prove difficult without a chairman.

Pelosi has moved on her own to form a special oversight panel led by Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. It is modeled on a committee led by then-Sen. Harry Truman to look at defense spending during World War II.

The House panel aims to “fight waste, fraud, abuse, price gouging, profiteering and the rest,’’ Pelosi said. Unlike other entities, Clyburn's panel will have subpoena power.

Still, no members of the committee have been appointed since Clyburn was named to the post in early April, and it is not clear if Republicans will participate.

Similarly, Trump has nominated one of his White House lawyers, former inspector general Brian Miller, to a new Treasury inspector general position created to track coronavirus relief for industry. But the Senate isn’t around to confirm him.

Pelosi told reporters Thursday she expects to announce her appointee to the congressional commission soon, adding that the House will vote on the Clyburn committee when they return.

“With all the money going out, we really need to do it in a timely fashion,” she said.

The delays have watchdog groups concerned. Sean Moulton of the Project on Government Oversight said the early days are crucial, since so much work needs to be done to properly track the money, including building websites and working with agencies to ensure tracking is done correctly.

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“This is an unprecedented level of relief and it needs an unprecedented level of oversight,” he said. “We need every dollar in this relief package to make a difference. We can’t afford to have any of it wasted or stolen out from underneath us.”

So far, the administration is saying little about where the money is going.

The Small Business Administration is releasing state-level totals about money going to businesses with 500 workers or fewer, but the data is limited. The Treasury Department has revealed no plans for how it will detail the $500 billion in loans being given to industry, states and local governments. And the Federal Reserve has promised to start public tracking, but with the rules for the programs still being written, that information isn’t yet available.

Democrats in Congress who pushed for the oversight are upset that more has not been done.

“The president is fighting this oversight, removing officials from key positions, and publicly attacking and even firing overseers because they do their jobs and tell the truth,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, promising “robust oversight” of the administration's response nonetheless.

Ramamurti says he believes it’s crucial to have strong oversight and explain to the public — in language people can understand — where the coronavirus dollars are going. “We have an important obligation to demystify all this for the public,'' he said. "This is what’s happening to your money.”

He stressed the importance of his five-person panel, whose membership is beyond Trump's control: "We're the only oversight body that President Trump can’t tamper with.''

Associated Press writers Martin Crutsinger, Marcy Gordon and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.