A five-member commission created to track nearly $500 billion of coronavirus relief spending is still missing four members.
And an office.
And its first report is due to Congress in a few weeks.
Bloomberg reports that Bharat Ramamurti remains the sole appointee on the Congressional Oversight Commission that's charged with overseeing about half a trillion dollars worth of emergency spending authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). The commission's mandate to provide oversight on $454 billion in spending to be disbursed from the Treasury Department to large and small businesses affected by the pandemic—an amount of money nearly equal to the annual budget for Medicare.
The commission is supposed to operate for five years and issue reports every 30 days. It is modeled after a similar temporary oversight commission that reviewed the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) during the previous economic crisis. Other aspects of the CARES Act's massive $2.3 trillion in spending are supposed to be overseen by the Government Accountability Office and a newly created Special Inspector General for Pandemic Response.
With few resources and no colleagues, Ramamurti has started using his Twitter account to raise questions about how the spending is being handled. Already, the Treasury Department has announced plans to use $195 billion of its CARES Act funding to support loan programs run by the Federal Reserve.
The CARES Act gave the Treasury Department at least $454B to use to support the economy. The Treasury and the Fed just announced how they will use $195B of it. The announcement raises several initial questions within the jurisdiction of the Congressional Oversight Commission: 1/
— Bharat Ramamurti (@BharatRamamurti) April 9, 2020
"I think it is concerning that a chunk of the money is going to support lending to big businesses, and that money comes with, as far as I can tell, zero strings attached in terms of restrictions on executive compensation, restrictions on stock buybacks and restrictions on dividends," Ramamurti tells The Washington Post.
The commission's ability to report on the Federal Reserve's coronavirus response "is a key check on the infamously accountability-resistant body," says the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog.
With recent news of President Donald Trump firing several inspectors general, about the only good thing to be said about the understaffed oversight commission is that at least Ramamurti isn't a Trump lackey. He's a former staffer for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), as well as an advisor to her failed presidential campaign. While working for Warren, Ramamurti was involved in the investigation that uncovered unscrupulous behavior by Wells Fargo, which had opened thousands of empty bank accounts in customers' names to meet internal sales targets.
He was appointed to the commission by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.), who said in a statement that Ramamurti "is a ferocious advocate for consumers who will fight for transparency and hold bad actors accountable." Other congressional leaders are responsible for appointing the remaining slots on the commission and for choosing a chairman or chairwoman.
Given the speed with which the CARES Act cleared Congress and the unprecedented amount of money being thrown around, it would not be much of a surprise to find rampant waste. And while fully staffed oversight commissions would help identify wasteful spending, it's probably right to be skeptical about such a body's ability to prevent it.
"Oversight only works if the government is small enough to do proper oversight, and it only works if you can follow it up with proper action. That's something the government doesn't do very well," says Veronique de Rugy, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center and a Reason contributor. "And $2 trillion is impossible to oversee. It's insane. Even if that person flags stuff, what is going to happen?"
Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a nonprofit that advocates for fiscal responsibility, has proposed 10 principles on its website for the money being spent for coronavirus and other emergencies. The recommendations include making everything temporary, targeted, transparent, and accountable. All of the expenditures should be made available in a searchable online database, the group says.
"Taxpayer and watchdog groups need to be vigilant to make sure the oversight is not politicized," Tom Schatz, president of CAGW told Reason via email, "and that the money and power being given to the government at all levels is not abused or extended beyond this crisis."
Wasteful spending in government is inevitable. Malfeasance in a massive, rushed spending package is all but guaranteed. The only hope for limiting it is having Congress empower the watchdogs—immediately.