Congress has authorized more than $3.6 trillion in new spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now lawmakers are already discussing plans for more pandemic spending—with perhaps as much $1 trillion directed to cash-strapped city and state governments.
Before spending another dollar, Congress should finish the important work of making sure someone is keeping an eye how the largest pile of government cash in American history is being spent.
The $2.3 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act contained three levels of oversight: a new inspector general position at the Treasury Department, an independent Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to coordinate the efforts of several other inspectors general within the executive branch, and a bipartisan congressional commission.
More than a month later, each has already been hamstrung by a combination of apathy and partisanship.
The congressional commission had only one appointee—it was supposed to have five—for several weeks, even as it was supposed to be overseeing more than $500 billion in spending. The delay in getting people appointed to the commission, assigning staff, and doing other basic set-up tasks "definitely hampered the ability for oversight to be effective," Rep. Katie Porter (D–Calif.) of the House Oversight Committee told The Daily Beast this week. "We have definitely wasted, misused taxpayer money because of that delay."
Meanwhile, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee has lacked a chairman since April 7, when President Donald Trump fired Glenn Fine, the Pentagon inspector general who had been tapped for the job on March 30. Since the CARES Act stipulates that only currently serving inspectors general can serve on the committee, Trump's firing of Fine—and his dismissal of several other inspectors general at the same time—has limited the committee's ability to do its job.
In a statement issued after he signed the CARES Act, Trump indicated his intention to further politicize oversight of the stimulus spending by suggesting that the administration may try to stop inspectors general from reporting directly to Congress without "presidential supervision."
In an April 22 letter to the White House, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) said the administration may be trying to "strip IGs [inspectors general] of their fundamental ability to timely report waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct in government programs to Congress."
"Such authority is vital to their role in securing government transparency and efficiency, and is a critical role that all IGs routinely perform," he wrote.
With many of the official oversight channels blocked in one way or another, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) this week announced a new panel within the House Oversight Committee to review coronavirus spending.
That, too, has devolved into a partisan battle. They Democrats "just want to play politics and impeach," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed Thursday in an interview with Fox News, "and they're following the same pattern when it comes to the committee as they did with all the others."
McCarthy went on to say that he wants "as much oversight as possible," but the opportunity for maximum oversight—or even adequate oversight—of the trillions in coronavirus spending has already passed. Congress and independent auditors in the executive branch are left to simply play catch-up at this point.