Who Is Watching Over Coronavirus Bailout Spending?

Apr 19, 2020
Originally published on April 19, 2020 11:26 am
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Congress is working to push out more rescue money, mainly for the small-business program, which quickly ran out of funding. So far, all of those checks and other aid add up to nearly $2 trillion in government money heading out the door very quickly. Bharat Ramamurti is charged with making sure much of it lands where it is supposed to. He was the first person named to a five-member congressional commission that will monitor spending, and he joins us on the line.

Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we also have NPR's Tim Mak with us. He's part of NPR's investigations team. And he'll also have some questions to ask.

Good morning to you.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bharat Ramamurti, this is an unprecedented amount of money to monitor. Quite simply, can you?

RAMAMURTI: Yes, I think we can, and I think we have an obligation to the public to do so. A big chunk of the bill is allocated to the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to use to stabilize the economy by lending to medium-size and big businesses. And the Fed and the Treasury have a lot of discretion in deciding how to use that money. And the goal of the Oversight Commission is to make sure that the Fed and the Treasury are making those decisions so that the benefits flow to working people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, though, says the coronavirus rescue that Congress passed last month will cost $1.8 trillion, not the 2.2 trillion we thought it might cost initially. I mean, that's not a small discrepancy. What are you most interested in finding out first?

RAMAMURTI: Well, as an initial matter, at the moment, the Federal Reserve is not even committing to disclosing the names of the companies that receive taxpayer-backed lending. I think as an initial matter, the public deserves to know which companies are getting taxpayer-backed support so then, as a next step, we can monitor what those companies end up doing with all that money.

MAK: And so Bharat, what's your reaction to the president's removal of the acting Pentagon inspector general who was supposed to oversee a council of IGs? Does this mean your committee is really the be-all, end-all when it comes to oversight?

RAMAMURTI: It does underscore the importance of the Congressional Oversight Commission because as you note, there are three oversight bodies in the bill that Congress recently passed to oversee all of the spending. But the Oversight Commission is the only one that President Trump can't tamper with directly, either by removing members or by naming people to the commission. The Oversight Commission - all of the members are named by Congress. And so it is insulated in that way from tampering by the executive branch. It's just all the more reason that this commission should get up and running as quickly as possible and performing robust oversight.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You just mentioned something that I thought was interesting. You say you haven't even been able yet to get a list of the companies that will be beneficiaries of this money. Tell us about the powers you'll actually have. What are you able to do and not to do? Are the lines clear?

RAMAMURTI: Yes, the law is clear that we are able to call government officials to testify before us. We are able to request and receive documents from federal agencies to get details about this. What we don't have at the moment is subpoena power, so we're not able to compel, legally, the testimony or the turning over of documents. Still, there are significant powers under this bill, and it's similar, I should note, to the 2008 oversight panel that oversaw the bank bailout and that then-professor Elizabeth Warren ran and used to great effect to tell the public what was happening to its money.

MAK: Well, Bharat, this is an administration that has resisted subpoenas and withheld documents even during impeachment, which is one of the most powerful prerogatives of Congress. So without that subpoena power, how are you confident that you'll actually be able to exercise adequate oversight over all of this money?

RAMAMURTI: Well, I think the Oversight Commission has significant powers, and we should be creative about how to use the powers that we have. So for example, we can request and try to receive information from companies directly about what they're doing with the money that they're receiving from taxpayers. We can also work with other existing oversight bodies in Congress - for example, the House Oversight Committee. There are oversight committees in the Senate as well. They all have overlapping jurisdiction and different powers that maybe we can tap in order to get access to the information that we're going to need.

MAK: But so then what is the actual competitive advantage of this commission over the existing oversight bodies in the House and Senate, which do have subpoena power?

RAMAMURTI: So I think there's two things. One, again, is that this is a body that is tasked with, in the law, monitoring the effect of this set of money on, quote, "the financial well-being of American families." That's our mission, and we're supposed to provide a public report every 30 days that tries to answer that question.

So different committees are going to have different mandates. Our mandate is very clearly to try to explain this enormous sum of money - how is it actually affecting you? And I think that that's a unique mission and an opportunity for us to try and spell out very clearly and to demystify this process to explain to people what is happening with half a trillion of your own dollars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let me jump in here because I want to get your reaction to something Reuters is reporting about the small-business loan program. More than 25% of that money, they say, has so far gone to just a few companies, some with thousands of employees. Also, some Republican-led states that have been less affected by the coronavirus were big recipients. Some Democrats see political favoritism at play. Is that something that you will be looking into?

RAMAMURTI: Actually, our oversight commission does not have jurisdiction over the small-business program. It's a similar set of concerns about which companies are getting money and which ones are not, on what kinds of terms are they getting money. These are all deeply political decisions that have massive implications for communities and for workers. And it's incumbent on the Oversight Commission to dig into those details so that it can present that information to the public.

MAK: So you've just been appointed to this commission, and I want to get a understanding of how quickly things are moving. Have you received any documentation or information that you will need to do part of this oversight work? Do you know anything that Lulu and I and the rest of the public don't already know that's out in the public yet?

RAMAMURTI: So three of the other members of the commission were appointed on Friday, and I look forward to working with them to deliver our first report. I've started to raise some questions about the decisions that the Treasury and the Fed have already started making with this $500 billion pot of money.

And on Wednesday, I sent a letter to the chairman of the Federal Reserve, asking them for very specific disclosures about the companies that they are lending money to and the terms on which they are lending it. I have not received a response yet, but my hope is that the Federal Reserve will respond soon and provide a very clear and transparent list of the companies that it is providing lending to so that then we can monitor what those companies subsequently do with that money.

MAK: So there are deadlines outlined in the CARES Act, and there's a timeline for an initial report. And you kind of alluded to that. Given the timeline in getting all of these oversight aspects stood up, are you on track to meet those deadlines?

RAMAMURTI: Well, the law makes clear that we have to provide our first report to the public within 30 days of the first transaction between the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. That happened last Thursday. So by my count, we have until the first or second week of May to file that initial report. My hope and expectation is that we will submit that report on time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question - do you think there should be an independent commission established to determine how the federal government could've better responded to the coronavirus crisis, as someone who is involved in oversight?

RAMAMURTI: Well, look. I think any form of oversight - additional form of oversight here is a positive. This is a - an unprecedented economic crisis. This is a unprecedented sum of money that the federal government is spending relatively quickly. I think it's useful to have oversight bodies looking into different aspects of it. And ultimately, they should all cooperate together, too, because the goal of all of this is to provide the public with an accounting of what's happening with its own money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bharat Ramamurti is on a congressional commission overseeing the nearly $2 trillion allocated so far to rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis.

Thank you so much.

RAMAMURTI: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And thanks, also, to NPR's Tim Mak, part of the NPR investigations unit.

Tim, thanks to you.

MAK: Thank you.