WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s inclusion of a signing statement alongside the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill last week appeared to be an attempt on his part to sidestep congressional oversight over how much of that historically large package is distributed.
But Trump's actions were met mostly with a shrug on Capitol Hill, in large part because Congress included several layers of oversight in the measure to watch over an administration directing a massive disbursement of federal funds.
Faced with the probability of a presidential signing statement and uneasy about the process of handing out hundreds of billions of dollars of loans and grants to small and big businesses, Congress built into the legislation multiple oversight entities and requirements for transparency meant to protect against favoritism, fraud and fiduciary recklessness.
The president’s signing statement, which says the newly created special inspector general overseeing the process must consult with the administration before handing over information to Congress, is a small dent into the oversight mechanisms, according to congressional aides.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Friday that the president's signing statement is “not a surprise to anyone”
“But Congress will exercise its oversight and we will have our panel appointed by the House to, in real time, to make sure we know where those funds are being expended,” she said.
Both Republicans and Democrats are taking credit for the oversight mechanisms and congressional oversight groups are mostly pleased with the accountability measures. With memories fresh from the economic stimulus and the Wall Street bailout from the 2008 financial crisis, Congress mimicked those oversight provisions and added more.
Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, called the president’s signing statement “disappointing” but said that Congress took oversight seriously in the legislation it passed.
“I think we’re encouraged,” Moulton said. “They opened the door and put us on the right path, and now it’s about making sure they follow through.”
The president’s signing statement pertains to a newly created special inspector general for pandemic recovery responsible for overseeing the more than $400 billion of loans to big businesses by the Treasury secretary. The new position mirrors a special inspector general created to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, in the Wall Street bailout.
The president is responsible for appointing the special inspector general and the Senate has the responsibility to confirm. If the president fails to appoint an inspector general, Democrats are sure to complain that the president and the administration has something to hide.
Congress also created two other oversight boards, including one with similar responsibilities as the special inspector general. Although it doesn’t have subpoena power, a congressional oversight panel made up of five members will also oversee the big business fund run by Treasury and the Federal Reserve. Each congressional leader will appoint a member and the fifth member is agreed upon between Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Treasury secretary and the Federal Reserve are also required to post companies that have been given loans within seven days on their websites.
Additionally, a committee of inspectors general from nine federal agencies, known as the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, or PRAC, was given $80 million to audit and investigate the federal governmen'ts coronavirus response and implementation of all relief funds.
That committee is moving extremely quickly. On Monday, the first working day since the legislation was signed, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced that acting Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine will lead inspectors general from the Homeland Security, Health and Human Services departments and several other agencies to oversee all of the government’s response. They will post information they receive on a public website.
“The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee is critical to holding President Trump and his administration accountable to the letter and spirit of the law,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a statement.