Coronavirus oversight lags as trillions in relief head out the door

Coronavirus oversight lags as trillions in relief head out the door
© Greg Nash

Democrats are struggling to monitor the Trump administration's handling of coronavirus relief funding at a time when Congress is poised to provide an additional $500 billion in emergency aid and watchdogs warn of massive fraud and abuse.

While party leaders have demanded strict accounting of the trillions of dollars Congress has approved to address the pandemic, they’ve faced hurdles setting up oversight mechanisms, even as the massive outlays start flowing out the door.

Much of the impediment boils down to simple logistics: House committees have not been able to meet in the Capitol for weeks over fears of an outbreak, and lawmakers are quarreling over whether the oversight panels can meet virtually using video-conferencing systems like Zoom.

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“It’s absolutely more difficult” to conduct oversight, one House Democrat told The Hill.

Another setback originated in the White House, where President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE this month fired the head of an administrative panel created by Congress to oversee the historic relief effort. And a separate post designed to ensure transparency — the special inspector general for pandemic recovery — remains empty while the Senate weighs the fate of Trump’s nominee Brian Miller, a loyalist who faces significant obstacles to confirmation.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSheldon Whitehouse leads Democrats into battle against Trump judiciary GOP lawmaker calls on Senate to confirm Michael Pack as head of US media agency McConnell blocks resolution condemning Trump over treatment of protesters MORE (D-N.Y.) has said Miller, a White House lawyer, “is exactly the wrong type of person to choose for this position.”

But Democrats are now dealing with their own controversy.

Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former NIC Director Greg Treverton rips US response; WHO warns of 'immediate second peak' if countries reopen too quickly Treasury has not disbursed B in airline support: oversight panel We can't afford to let local news die MORE (D-Fla.), Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNRCC turns up heat on vulnerable Democrats over Omar's call to abolish police Shocking job numbers raise hopes for quicker recovery Engel primary challenger hits million in donations MORE's (D-Calif.) new pick for a separate, five-member congressional oversight panel, made headlines this week for failing to report the sale of her stocks last year, a violation of the federal STOCK Act that requires lawmakers to be transparent about their investment activity.

Shalala, who was Health and Human Services secretary during the Clinton administration and later a university administrator, issued an apology, saying she took “full responsibility” for her error. But that hasn’t prevented Republicans from calling for her removal from the oversight panel.

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“I believe in the STOCK Act. I'm a strong supporter of the STOCK Act. … I was doing the opposite of insider trading; I was getting rid of any conflict of interest in the process,” Shalala told the CBS affiliate in Miami. “But I absolutely missed those deadlines, and I apologize for them. It was my mistake. And I take full responsibility.”

Despite the series of stumbling blocks, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are vowing to charge ahead with their oversight, fueled by reports that funds designed to be a lifeline for small businesses have instead gone to some large chain restaurants, like Shake Shack, and well-heeled universities like Harvard. Both have since promised to return the loans.

Democrats have made clear they simply don’t trust the president, or those on his team, to disburse the funds equitably. Pelosi on Wednesday drove that point home, saying she fully expects the White House to try to use the money for political gain, rather than targeting the businesses, medical workers and COVID-19 victims most in need.

“The idea that they would have distributed those funds in a way that was not in furtherance of ending this pandemic is totally irresponsible, but not surprising,” Pelosi told Bloomberg News.

With that in mind, Democratic leaders have scheduled a vote Thursday to form yet another layer of pandemic oversight, creating a new congressional committee charged with monitoring the massive spending. 

“We will have a bright light shining on this,” Pelosi said.

But while Democrats are characterizing their oversight regimen as nonpartisan, GOP leaders are signaling their opposition, saying the new panel is "redundant" and designed for the political purpose of attacking the president ahead of November’s elections. Fueling the Republican criticism, Pelosi has tapped Majority Whip Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnRepublicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump Klobuchar on defense as Floyd death puts spotlight on record Khanna: Coronavirus has 'accelerated' the need for rural broadband MORE (D-S.C.), a top surrogate of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination The Memo: Job numbers boost Trump and challenge Biden Chris Wallace: Jobs numbers show 'the political resilience of Donald Trump' MORE, as the panel’s chairman.

“The Speaker tried to commit to me that this would be a bipartisan committee. I told her I don't view it that way. I view it more as a political one,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - DC preps for massive Saturday protest; Murkowski breaks with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Floyd eulogies begin; Trump-Esper conflict emerges The Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen MORE (R-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday. “I don't see a lot of members voting for it on our side."

House lawmakers are set to return to Washington on Thursday morning to vote on a $500 billion emergency rescue package to provide more funding for small businesses, hospitals and COVID-19 testing. It will mark the first time many lawmakers will have set foot in the Capitol since March 27, when they passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the largest such economic aid package in U.S. history.

Their weeks-long absence from the Capitol has made it extremely challenging for Democratic-controlled House committees to conduct any oversight of Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis or his administration’s distribution of trillions of dollars in small-business loans, expanded unemployment benefits and relief checks.

Still, some are trying to keep tabs.

The House Small Business Committee, led by Rep. Nydia VelazquezNydia Margarita VelasquezDOJ watchdog launches probe into death of inmate pepper sprayed by guards Keeping Dreamers, TPS holders in our workforce and communities is essential to the nation's economic recovery Two groups hit hardest by the coronavirus need support: The Community Meals Fund Act can help MORE (D-N.Y.), held a private, members-only phone call with Small Business Administrator Jovita Carranza on Wednesday to raise concerns about CARES Act implementation and other issues, lawmakers said. The committee is also planning a public meeting on Thursday, though most other House panels have not scheduled such gatherings in order to comply with social-distancing guidelines in the Capitol.

Complicating oversight efforts, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff uses Tiananmen anniversary to condemn Trump's response to protests Flynn urged Russian diplomat to have 'reciprocal' response to Obama sanctions, new transcripts show The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation MORE (D-Calif.) and Homeland Security Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHouse committee chair requests immediate briefing on Secret Service's involvement in clearing protesters House Homeland Security Committee asks for more information about extremist involvement in protests States plead for cybersecurity funds as hacking threat surges MORE (D-Miss.) have drafted competing bills that would create a 9/11-style commission to look into why the government failed to stop the spread of a virus that has already killed more than 46,000 people nationwide. It’s unclear if or when such a bill would get a vote on the House floor, and the GOP-controlled Senate would be unlikely to take it up if it’s passed.

On Wednesday, some progressive groups and the House GOP’s campaign arm called for Shalala to resign from the oversight board. But Shalala said she didn’t feel her mistake was disqualifying, and Pelosi indicated she was standing by her pick for the panel.

In a statement, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Shalala took “aggressive steps” to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest upon arriving in Congress last year and has been working with the Ethics Committee to address the matter.

“As a distinguished administrator who has spent many years in public service, Congresswoman Shalala has the Speaker’s complete confidence as she works to hold the Administration accountable to the taxpayer through the CARES Congressional Oversight Commission,” Hammill said.

In her CBS interview, Shalala said she planned to heavily scrutinize the corporations that received some of the billions in bailout funding, including major airlines.

“Here's what I'm worried about: I'm worried about fraud. I'm worried about mischief,” she said. “And I'm obviously worried about: did these companies simply take the money and leverage it for more money?”

-- Updated at 6:06 p.m.