In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress passed the biggest economic stimulus in our history. Such a large cash infusion is bound to raise ethics questions, from potential profiteering by President Trump’s family members and his Cabinet, to corporate cash grabs at the expense of taxpayers. Despite the obvious need to block any opportunities for corruption in the $2 trillion stimulus, proper oversight is lacking.
The primary oversight mechanism for the full stimulus package (and other COVID-19-related spending that has already passed or may pass in the future) is the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a group of Inspectors General from the various agencies that are the primary vehicles for distributing these funds. The major issue with the committee is that four of the eight inspector general positions that are named to the committee are empty. DOD, Education, HHS and Treasury—four of the agencies with significant authority over the disbursement of funds—do not have permanent inspectors general, with only acting inspectors general filling in while waiting for President Trump to nominate and the Senate to confirm permanent leaders in these critical positions.
Beyond the troubling absence of permanent watchdogs, other accountability gaps will need to be addressed, like the need for robust auditing for the self-reports about the use and amount of funds received, and the lax rules for who Senate and House leadership may appoint to serve on the Congressional Oversight Commission, which could allow people with conflicts of interest to bias public reports.
Concerns about corruption and transparency in the stimulus bill could be largely addressed by simply putting qualified, permanent and independent inspectors general into these key positions. President Trump should quickly nominate a Special Inspector General (as required by the bill) and should nominate candidates to fill the other vacancies that meet the same bar for qualifications as the Special IG. We already have reason to worry, as in his signing statement, Trump said the Special Inspector General would not be allowed to go to Congress without permission from the White House if agencies refused to cooperate with information requests. He went so far as to say that it was “unreasonable.”
If and when permanent watchdogs are appointed, serving on the committee will likely be no easy task, because the amount of money to be overseen is so large and acting quickly to address the crisis is so important. These factors can make potentially thorny ethics and oversight questions even more difficult to resolve. We will need the largest stimulus oversight and accountability effort in our history to meet these challenges. Unfortunately, so far we do not have it.