Lawmakers have unleashed more than $ 5 trillion in aid over the past year to help businesses and individuals through the pandemic crisis. But the magnitude of this effort is seriously putting pressure on a patchwork monitoring network created to eliminate waste and fraud.
The Biden administration has taken steps to improve the responsibilities and oversight guarantees rejected by the Trump administration, including more detailed and frequent information requirements for those receiving funds. But money surveillance has been complicated by long lawn battles; the lack of a centralized and fully functional system for monitoring how funds are spent; and how quickly the government has tried to disburse aid.
The scope of oversight is broad, as the Biden administration controls the purpose of relief money disbursed by the Trump administration last year, in addition to the $ 1.9 trillion bailout package that Democrats approved in March. Much of that money is starting to come out the door, including $ 21.6 billion in rental assistance funds, $ 350 billion in state and local governments, $ 29 billion in restaurants, and a $ 16,000 grant fund. millions of dollars for live event companies like theaters and music clubs.
The funds were supposed to be tracked by a gang of supervisors, including congressional panels, inspectors general and the White House budget office. But the system has been plagued by disagreements and, until recently, disorder.
President Biden has singled out a longtime economic adviser, Gene Sperling, as his tsar of pandemic relief. Sperling, who twice headed the National Economic Council, has been competing to defend the architecture of oversight and relies heavily on the investigative powers of the Pandemic Response Responsibility Committee, a group of inspectors. general, in addition to the Office of Government Responsibility and the Office of Management and Budget of the administration.
“When you have a rescue plan, there will be some tension between aspiring to perfection and meeting the fundamental goals of the law to move funds on time to reduce child poverty, keep people at home, save small businesses, restaurants and centers daycare, “Sperling said in an interview.” You just have to do everything you can to achieve a rigorous and proper balance. “
But the dispersal of supervisory functions has led to conflicts and complicated surveillance.
In late April, Brian D. Miller, whom President Donald J. Trump appointed as the Treasury Department’s special inspector general for the recovery of the pandemic, released a scathing report accusing other Treasury officials of block it to conduct more extensive research.
Miller was selected to oversee relief programs managed by the Treasury Department, but agency officials believed his role was to track down just a $ 500 billion pot of money for emergency loan programs. of the Federal Reserve and funds for airlines and companies that are critical to countries. security. Miller said Treasury officials were initially cooperative during the Trump administration, but that after the transition to the new administration began, their access to information dried up.
After denying Mr.’s requests. Miller for data on the program, appealed to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Advice, which ruled against it last month. His team of 42 people has little to do.
“Instead of trying to get people out, I think we should welcome everyone if they want to roll up their sleeves and supervise,” Miller said in an interview.
White House officials rejected their concerns and insisted they remained committed to sound oversight and transparency. The Treasury Department said Mr. Miller was trying work outside its jurisdiction and said it “will continue to ensure that all of our inspectors general, congressional jurisdiction committees and other oversight bodies have the information they need.”
“President Biden has made it clear to his team that oversight is a key priority,” said Ron Klain, White House chief of staff. “This means coordination and integration across the government to ensure that taxpayers’ funds are spent according to the intentions and service of the needs of the American people.”
To date, the largest cases of fraud and waste account for a relatively small percentage of 2020 initiatives and have been largely limited to small business lending efforts, such as the Wage Protection Program and Disaster Loans. economic. But federal experts in oversight and watchdog groups say the exact scale of the $ 2 trillion stimulus bill from the $ 2 trillion stimulus bill in March 2020 is virtually impossible to determine because of the inadequacy of monitoring and accountability reports.
Mr. Miller has been pursuing cases of business owners being diverted from various relief money deposits, such as airlines taking out small business loans and also receiving payroll support funds. The inspector general of the Small Business Administration said last year that the agency “lowered the railings” and that 15,000 economic disaster loans totaling $ 450 million were fraudulent.
The government’s Accountability Office also placed small business loan programs on its “high-risk” watch list in March, warning that the lack of information on aid recipients and guarantees inadequate could lead to many more problems than have been reported. The report identified “shortcomings in all components of internal control” in the supervision of the Small Business Administration and concluded that officials “should show stronger program integrity controls and better management.”
The Government Accountability Office flagged 896,000 errors from lenders that were not investigated by the Small Business Administration and cited problems with oversight of loan approvals, follow-up reports and oversight of contractors. The agency, now run by Biden-appointed people, recently responded with a proposal to renew many, but not all, of its procedures.
Oversight veterans and some lawmakers say they want to see a more cohesive approach and more transparency on the part of the Biden administration.
“It’s amazing how little oversight there is,” said Neil M. Barofsky, who was special inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program from 2008 to 2011. “Not because of the people who are there, but because of the failure to giving them power and giving them the opportunity to do their job. “
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said she had pushed hard for more oversight last year because she believed Trump administration officials had conflicts of interest. Despite the improvements, he said, the Biden administration could be doing more.
“I kept pushing for more oversight: we had part of it, but not everything we needed,” Ms. Warren. “We’re talking about hundreds of billions here.”
He added: “The Biden administration is definitely improving, but there is no substitute for transparency and oversight, and we can always do better.”
In a closed-door meeting with Mr. Mr. Sperling, a political leader with limited oversight experience, Mr. Biden issued a forceful directive: “You better work closely with the IGs, like me,” he said, according to a person whom Mr. Later, Sperling transmitted the story. Later, at his first cabinet meeting, the president pressured his appointees to cooperate with control officials.
White House officials said the current oversight system, which relies heavily on independent inspectors general already working in federal agencies, worked efficiently, even with occasional grass battles.
Sperling holds regular meetings with Michael E. Horowitz, who chairs the pandemic relief committee, along with officials from the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Management and Budgets. They also require states and localities to publish performance reports that explain how the money they received is used.
But Mr. Biden’s team is equally concerned about imposing too many burdens on affected recipients, and Mr. Sperling is especially concerned about the slow pace of programs aimed at accelerating $ 25 billion for approved emergency housing assistance. last year.
Surveillance groups are wary that speed may sacrifice accountability.
Under Mr. Trump, the Office of Management and Budgets, which is responsible for setting policies in federal agencies, refused to meet all the reporting requirements of the 2020 stimulus that required it to collect and publish data. about companies that took money under small business loan programs.
For some observers, Mr. Biden’s budget office has not moved fast enough to reverse Trump-era politics. Instead, Mr. Sterling is working on a complex set of benchmarks – tailored to individual programs included in the $ 1.9 trillion relief bill – that will be published one by one in the coming months.
“When the recipients were informed, the Trump administration said, ‘We don’t need to do any of this,'” said Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst for the Government Oversight Project, a nonpartisan oversight group. We’re seeing improvements under the Biden administration, but they basically also say, “We won’t be collecting this information either.” That’s not good enough. “
Since last year, Mr Horowitz, whose group includes the 22 inspectors general, has argued that detailed information on expenditure is needed to make adjustments to the criteria, guidance and design of future aid efforts. .
“We need enough data to allow us to assess the impact and effects,” he said in an interview. “Did this provide the kind of support that was intended? You need to know, beyond the obvious question of whether people stole money or not.”
Some of the supervisors have also had issues with internal disagreements. The Congressional Oversight Commission, a bipartisan group set up to track how the Treasury uses money for Federal Reserve loans and other funds, was hampered by disagreements over a program to favor troubled local and state governments .
His legally mandated report to Congress was delayed for weeks and a member of the group, Bharat Ramamurti, accused his Republican colleagues of stopping the group’s work. Ramamurti has since left to work in the Biden administration, and the group of five now has three commissioners and no president. His last report was only 19 pages long.