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$2 Trillion Coronavirus Package Has Built-In Accountability Steps


The House is expected to pass a $2 trillion coronavirus-related economic rescue package today. It's the biggest in history. And it includes a $500 billion fund that the Treasury Department will use to help American corporations. That is a lot of money. So NPR's Tim Mak has been looking into what kind of oversight there will be. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

KING: So 500 billion bucks - how does this bill ensure that none of it will be wasted, that there will be no fraud?

MAK: Well, so the bill creates what is called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. It's made up of existing inspectors general from various government agencies who will work together to conduct investigations and audits into these programs. The legislation allocates $20 million for the Government Accountability Office and also includes a special inspector general just to focus on that $500 billion that the Treasury Department has in order to work with corporations.

And finally, there is a congressional oversight commission that will be reporting to Congress every 30 days. Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, praised the frequent reporting requirements in the bill.

LIZ HEMPOWICZ: It does allow you to also do kind of that real-time oversight that's going to be really important in a situation like this where the money is being spent very quickly.

MAK: So they've woven oversight into the heart of this bill in order to try and reduce the chance of corruption.

KING: They've woven a lot of oversight in, based on what you've just said. How did this all end up in the legislation - so much of it?

MAK: Well, here's one example. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, she played a central role on an oversight panel she chaired during the TARP bailout. And she is again playing a role in getting this congressional oversight into this legislation. Here's how it happened. On Monday evening, President Trump answered a question about funds in the coronavirus legislation.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Look. I'll be the oversight. I'll be the oversight. We're going to make good deals. We make good deals.

MAK: That alarmed Warren, who, according to a source close to the senator, called Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that night to see if they had locked in better oversight provisions in the bill. And some other lawmakers are taking credit for other various accountability provisions. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, offered ideas for that committee of inspectors general we spoke about, for example.

KING: You have also been talking to watchdog groups who have nothing to do with the government. These are independent groups. What are they saying?

MAK: Well, so there are some holes in it. Craig Holman - he's a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen - said that the bill doesn't prohibit corporations from using the funds for political purposes.

CRAIG HOLMAN: So that means major corporations that are receiving billions of dollars in bailout funds will be able to also make expenditures trying to lobby the federal government to either change the law or secure significant government contracts or even make political expenditures, try to influence those who will be in the position of determining what the law means.

MAK: And remember that committee of inspectors general I mentioned earlier?

KING: Yeah.

MAK: Jennifer Ahearn, the policy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, spotted an issue.

JENNIFER AHEARN: Four of the 8 named inspector generals are technically vacant. And so there's an acting inspector general serving in that role.

MAK: That means those four haven't been confirmed by the Senate and have other jobs they have to do on top of their oversight responsibilities. And Molly Claflin, she's the oversight counsel - the chief oversight counsel at the watchdog group American Oversight. She had this to say.

MOLLY CLAFLIN: There is going to be fraud. There's going to be waste in some of these recovery funds. And there certainly will be profiteering. I think every CEO in America is going to want to get their hands on a piece of this check.

MAK: But she also says that the bill gives the public some tools.

CLAFLIN: But I think this bill at least gives Congress, the GAO and the inspectors general the mechanisms to try to hold things accountable and make sure the funds are spent in the most responsible way to benefit the American people.

MAK: So generally, government accountability groups are optimistic with the overall oversight provisions in this bill.

KING: NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.