We are facing an unprecedented crisis, and governments around the world have responded with unprecedented actions. In the United States, Congress has responded to the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis with the $2 trillion CARES Act and the subsequent $484 billion replenishment; still more legislation, allocating even more money for crisis response, is under discussion. When this much money is in play, oversight and fraud prevention are essential. There are already reports of PPP loans meant for small businesses going to larger companies, scammers targeting small business owners, stimulus checks being sent to deceased people, and several other COVID 19 scams. But the current safeguards for preventing fraud, corruption, and abuse in COVID-19 relief spending are woefully insufficient. As negotiations over further relief packages continue, those in Congress who care about government integrity—and the effectiveness of these trillion-dollar programs in achieving their objectives—should insist on correcting these deficiencies. In particular, here are five crucial steps that Congress can and should take to ensure that COVID-19 relief spending helps its intended beneficiaries rather than lining the pockets of grifters and grafters:
- First, Congress, and the Senate in particular, must ensure that the Inspectors General (IGs)—the officials responsible for detecting and responding to waste, fraud, and abuse in government programs—are capable and independent. The CARES Act created a Special Inspector General for Pandemic Relief (SIGPR), who will oversee COVID-related Treasury Department loans, but the nominee for this position—Brian Miller, a White House lawyer who previously served as IG for the General Services Administration—has not yet been confirmed; the Senate Banking Committee is currently holding hearings on his candidacy. Given the concerns about his impartiality, it is crucial that the Senate be convinced that he can be truly independent, capable of resisting political pressure when carrying out his duties. In addition, the Senate should also address the vacancies for IGs at four offices that are receiving funding increases under the CARES Act. The IG positions at these agencies are currently held by acting officials, but as the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency has emphasized, permanent IGs are essential if the IG office is to exercise the maximum amount of authority, with the maximum amount of independence.
- Second, Congress needs to safeguard the independence of IGs over the longer term with new legislation. The need for such action is highlighted by the troubling recent removals of the DOD and HHS IGs from their acting positions and the firing of the Intelligence Committee IG. Congress should work toward legislation mandating that IGs serve fixed terms in office and can only be removed prior to their expiration of their term for “good cause” (such as malfeasance in office). Some IGs, such as the IG for the Postal Service, already have such protections, and Congress should enact legislation to extend similar protections to all IGs, especially those with a role in overseeing the massive COVID-19 relief spending.
- Third, Congress must substantially increase the resources for oversight of COVID-19 relief spending, including money for IG offices. The CARES Act does not include nearly enough oversight funding, a fault that becomes even more glaring when the Act is compared to prior economic stimulus packages. The CARES Act package is two and a half times the size of the 2009 stimulus bill in terms of total spending, but the amount allocated for oversight in the CARES Act is $67 million less than the amount allocated for oversight in the 2009 stimulus package. Given the exceptionally high risks of fraud and corruption as trillions of dollars are allocated extremely rapidly, it is vital that Congress invest sufficient resources in oversight.
- Fourth, Congress needs to ensure that the mandate of SIGPR is sufficiently long that it can perform its functions effectively. Under the terms of the CARES Act, SIGPR is supposed to shut down five years after the enactment date of that ACT. That’s not long enough—SIGPR should be allowed to operate until it has completed all investigations within the office’s remit. That was the approach used for the office created to oversee spending under the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the Special Inspector General of the TARP (SIGTARP). Congress provided that SIGTARP’s lifespan would extend through the last monetary obligation related to TARP, rather than operating only for a narrow and artificially limited term of years. Indeed SIGTARP still exists today—as it should—and Congress should amend the CARES Act to give SIGPR similarly ongoing authority.
- Fifth, Congress needs to strengthen whistleblower protection—this is true generally, but the issue has become especially salient with respect to misappropriation or fraud in COVID-19 relief programs. IGs cannot not carry out their duties without the help of agency employees who have the courage to report alleged violations of law. Yet there are already reports indicating retaliation against whistleblowers who highlight COVID-related concerns. Congress must remedy the deficiencies in current whistleblower protection law both by amending the current legislation, and also by taking steps to guarantee effective enforcement of existing laws. On this latter point, one of the biggest problems with the current system is the state of the agency charged with enforcing the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). This agency, which has a backlog of several thousand cases, has no sitting members due to a lack of Senate confirmation of nominees—effectively shuttering this vital agency. In order to properly protect federal whistleblowers, the MSPB must be restored to a fully functioning state.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that has demanded sacrifice, action, and government spending on a level we have never seen. This spending must be accompanied by oversight provisions that empower public servants charged with detecting fraud to do their jobs properly. Otherwise, the spending will become a boon for those who seek to fraudulently profit off a global catastrophe. Congress must not let this happen.