Exclusive: Democrats seek to increase racial diversity of pandemic relief oversight board

Exclusive: Democrats seek to increase racial diversity of pandemic relief oversight board
© Greg Nash

A group of Senate Democrats including Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act What Kamala Harris' VP nomination means to us Harris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' MORE (D-Calif.), a leading contender to serve as Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins MORE’s running mate, want to increase the racial diversity of a congressional commission tasked with ensuring that trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief funding is distributed appropriately.

Harris, who is African American, has teamed up with Sens. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenCongress must finish work on popular conservation bill before time runs out Democrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate Mid-Atlantic states sue EPA over Chesapeake Bay pollution MORE (D-Md.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election The movement to reform animal agriculture has reached a tipping point Watchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump MORE (D-N.J.), who is also African American, and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Kasie Hunt to host lead-in show for MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report MORE (D-N.J.), who is Latino, to sponsor legislation that would ensure that minority communities that have been hit especially hard by the pandemic are represented by the CARES oversight commission.

The lawmakers argue the pandemic has disproportionately hurt Black, Latino, Pacific Islander and Native American businesses and families but the current makeup of the CARES oversight board does not represent those communities.

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“The CARES oversight commission needs to reflect the communities that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus and make sure those communities have a seat at the table, and that’s why we’re introducing this legislation,” said Van Hollen in an interview.

“The current composition of the commission does not fairly represent the communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic,” he added.

Van Hollen pointed to a report in the Baltimore Business Journal revealing that Black-owned businesses in Baltimore were largely shut out from receiving Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Congress appropriated more than $600 billion for the popular small-business lending program in the CARES Act and in a $484 billion interim package passed in April.

“We’ve not had adequate disclosure about where all the dollars are going but we do know that there have been real problems in getting the Paycheck Protection dollars to small businesses that are most in need, including [in] a lot of minority communities,” he said.

“Black businesses were really at the short end of the stick when it came to PPP help,” he added, citing the Baltimore Business Journal report.

The Congressional Oversight Commission was established to report on the activities of the Treasury secretary and the Federal Reserve, according to a description of the panel released by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Will Democrats attempt to pack the Supreme Court again? MORE’s (D-Calif.) office earlier this year.

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A congressional source familiar with the commission said the panel does not have PPP oversight.

A Senate Democratic aide said Van Hollen cited PPP because he believes the administration has implemented the CARES Act with little transparency. The senator pointed to the small-business lending program as an example of the need to increase participation of “communities of color” in federal aid programs.

The Democratic bill would amend the CARES Act to change the membership requirements of the five-member Congressional Oversight Commission set up to review the implementation of the $2.2 trillion law.

It would double the number of non-chair commission members by adding four new members and require half of them to be from communities hardest hit by the pandemic and the severe drop in gross domestic product reported in the second quarter.

The Congressional Oversight Commission on Wednesday announced its first hearing will be held Aug. 7.

Four members currently sit on the board, including three members of Congress. They are Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy MORE (R-Pa.), Rep. French HillJames (French) French HillThe use and abuse of the IMF in the fight against COVID-19 Lawmakers ask Pelosi, McConnell to diversify coronavirus relief oversight panel Exclusive: Democrats seek to increase racial diversity of pandemic relief oversight board MORE (R-Ark.), Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaOn The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' MORE (D-Fla.), and attorney Bharat Ramamurti.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHawley warns Schumer to steer clear of Catholic-based criticisms of Barrett Senate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Harris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' MORE (R-Ky.) have yet to agree on picking a chairman for the commission. The leaders were considering former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, but he withdrew his name from consideration.

The senators seeking more diversity on the panel say the current members are well-qualified but point out none of them are from the African American, Latinx, Pacific Islander or Native American communities.

Van Hollen said the Congressional Oversight Commission has yet to start producing any meaningful oversight while it lacks a chairman.

“When it comes to the CARES Congressional Oversight Commission, we still don’t have a chairman and they haven’t really started their work," he said.

It is one of three oversight mechanisms set up by Congress in March through the CARES Act.

The other two, the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR) and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) have also been slow in getting started.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE issued a statement when he signed the CARES Act into law declaring that he did not recognize the special inspector general’s authority to issue reports to Congress “without presidential supervision.”

The president in April blocked acting Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, who has a reputation for independence, from becoming chairman of the PRAC. Trump replaced Fine as the Pentagon’s inspector general and he then resigned from the office in May.

“It’s in disarray,” Van Hollen said of the total oversight effort.

Van Hollen said his staff has been in communication with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act Will Democrats attempt to pack the Supreme Court again? Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' MORE’s (D-N.Y.) staff and he expects the Democratic leader to back the legislation.

--Updated at 3:18 p.m.