The U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act), enacted in late March to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, provides over $2 trillion in various forms of relief, including over $600 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides loans to small businesses, and approximately $500 billion in additional discretionary Treasury Department loans. To ensure appropriate allocation of these funds, and to reduce the risks of corruption, fraud, and other forms of misappropriation, transparency and oversight are essential. Indeed, we have already seen the perils of a lack of transparency in awarding the PPP loans. Instead of prioritizing businesses who were in danger of failing without an injection of cash, many large chains and other well-funded companies received loans. Further, there are reports that businesses owned by members of Congress received money under the program, which raises conflict of interest concerns.
Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has resisted even relatively modest measures to assure transparency and accountability in the allocation of CARES Act funds. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin previously announced that the names of PPP recipients would not be made public, making the misguided claim that the identity of PPP loan recipients is the companies’ confidential and proprietary information. But taxpayer have a right to know where their money is going (a principle the U.S. vigorously applies when sending foreign aid dollars overseas). Eventually Secretary Mnuchin relented to pressure to change course, and agreed to provide information regarding PPP loans in excess of $150,000. Yet the administration’s resistance to transparency and oversight has continued, as demonstrated by alarming reports that the Treasury Department’s Office of General Counsel has issued a legal opinion claiming that the Department has no obligation to provide key information to oversight officials, including the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), about the CARES Act’s PPP and discretionary business loan programs.
These reports underscore the importance of keeping up the pressure on Congress and the Administration to take appropriate steps to ensure genuine transparency and accountability in the allocation of pandemic response funds. Congress in particular may need to add new legal provisions to address the flaws in the oversight system. The Coalition for Integrity recently released a new report, entitled Oversight is Better than Hindsight: Anti-Corruption Recommendations for the CARES Act, which documents the current oversight gaps in the CARES Act and presents a set of recommendations on how best to close those gaps. These recommendations include, among others: increasing appropriations for oversight bodies, enacting for-cause removal protections for Inspectors General, enhancing whistleblower protections, requiring the Federal Reserve to comply with Sunshine’s Act meeting transcript or recording requirements, and appointing a chairperson to the Congressional Oversight Commission. The report also highlights a number of measures that the Administration can and should take, including better and more effective cooperation with the oversight bodies, creating a public-facing website with detailed information on contracts awarded under the stimulus program (as was done by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversaw the stimulus funding enacted in response to the 2007-2008 financial crisis), and ensuring more generally that agencies are responsive rather than resistant to requests and recommendations from oversight bodies.
Effective oversight is not a partisan political issue. Misuse of stimulus money will compound the country’s collective misery at a time when millions are already suffering from the grave health and economic effects of the pandemic. In this context, insufficient public transparency and a lack of full cooperation with oversight bodies should worry us all.