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Congress Locks Trump Oversight in Bill 03/27 06:22

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump declared that "I'll be the 
oversight" as lawmakers were in the final days of drafting what became a $2.2 
trillion rescue plan for American businesses. In the end, Congress ensured that 
won't be the case. 

   The legislation, designed in part to help businesses and corporations 
hammered by closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, creates multiple layers 
of accountability for the billions of dollars in loans, grants and direct cash 
that will soon flow from the federal government. The House is expected to pass 
it Friday and send it to Trump for his signature. 

   The new oversight system will test the relationship between the White House 
and Congress, which frayed after Democrats won the House and deteriorated 
severely during Trump's impeachment as officials flouted requests for witnesses 
and documents. 

   Trump's assertion of responsibility for the coronavirus funds came Monday 
evening as his Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was on Capitol Hill crafting 
the package in late-night meetings with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. 
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 
D-Calif., had each introduced their own proposals, and Democrats said the 
Republican bill wasn't strong enough, arguing that it would create a "slush 
fund" for corporations. 

   In the end, the bipartisan final package incorporated much of what Democrats 
wanted, creating a trio of watchdogs, plus other checks, to try to ensure the 
money isn't misused. It establishes an oversight board made up of inspectors 
general, called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, stands up a 
separate dedicated inspector general position at the Treasury Department and 
creates a new committee of experts that reports to Congress. 

   Other accountability measures include more money for watchdogs in multiple 
federal agencies and requirements that the administration file detailed reports 
that analyze the flow of cash as it happens. 

   "Whenever you are appropriating over $2 trillion dollars it's important to 
ensure the money is spent the way it's intended," says Michigan Sen. Gary 
Peters, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental 
Affairs Committee. Peters helped negotiate the oversight provisions with 
Schumer and the GOP chairman of the panel, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. 

   "This needs to be outside of politics, that's the only way it has any 
credibility," Peters said. 

   Both Peters and House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, 
D-N.Y., suggested lawmakers could consider additional oversight provisions when 
Congress passes more legislation to deal with the pandemic. 

   Maloney praised the economic relief bill, but said in an emailed statement 
said that Democrats "think it could go even further to protect American 
taxpayers, and we are continuing to examine additional options."

   Watchdog groups that track government spending and oversight said the bill 
wasn't perfect, but provides essential resources as the pandemic worsens. Sean 
Moulton, a senior policy analyst at Project On Government Oversight, said his 
group is encouraged that there is "more than one lens of accountability" for 
the businesses that will be receiving the money. 

   "We're pleased that they aren't putting all of their oversight eggs in one 
basket," Moulton said. 

   Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for the consumer 
advocacy group Public Citizen, said she believed that Trump's declaration that 
he could personally oversee the process likely ensured that stronger provisions 
were included. "It showed his hand,'' Gilbert said. 

   The bedrock of the new oversight is the Pandemic Response Accountability 
Committee, which will be made up of independent inspectors general. Modeled 
after a similar board created to monitor the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program 
that rescued banks, the panel will have the ability to obtain documents, 
coordinate audits and identify waste and abuse. The board will report what they 
find on a central website. 

   Separately, Trump will appoint a special inspector general inside the 
Treasury Department who will be able to inspect records and review how the 
money is doled out. That position will be confirmed by the Senate - a process 
that could take weeks if the chamber stays out until April 20, when senators 
are currently scheduled to return. 

   Democrats also secured the creation of a Congressional Oversight Commission 
that will oversee the Treasury Department. Experts on the panel will be 
appointed by House and Senate leaders. Maloney said "the ideal makeup" of the 
panel would be a diverse set of experts "to complement the other oversight 
bodies established under the bill." 

   The legislation also includes a provision ensuring that bailout funds are 
not given to companies where a federal official, including the president, has 
at least a 20 percent interest. Language directed at airlines would block stock 
buy-backs and limit executive compensation. 

   Oversight groups fret that the legislation doesn't give the inspector 
generals panel subpoena power. They also note that Trump will be the one to 
appoint Treasury's inspector general, a potential wild card. 

   "It's all very personality driven," said Scott Ellis of the group Taxpayers 
for Common Sense. "(Inspectors general) can be very effective and not so 
effective."

   Negotiations on the bill churned until the end, with Democrats complaining 
in the hours before the vote that bipartisan language requiring the government 
to publish weekly lists of companies and entities that gain financing through 
the bailout funds was left out. Without this language, this information could 
have been kept secret from public, the Democrats argued. The language ended up 
in the final version. 

   And though the end product was bipartisan --- the Senate vote was 96-0 --- 
the two parties had sharp disagreement. Republican Sen. James Lankford, 
R-Okla., said on the Senate floor before the bill was passed that Democrats 
"wanted to make sure there was great transparency because they didn't trust the 
Trump administration. So they built in an inspector general and additional 
people to watch the Treasury through the process.''

   Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, senior Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, 
said that Democrats pushed for the provisions to put workers first. 

   Lawmakers need to "make sure money actually ends up in the pockets of 
workers, not CEOs,'' Brown said.


(KR)

 
 
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