Holding the Government Accountable

Five Key Oversight Safeguards for Coronavirus Spending Bills

(Illustration: Leslie Garvey/POGO)

As Congress prepares to respond to the growing coronavirus outbreak, no recovery bill should move ahead without meaningful transparency, oversight, and accountability measures to ensure the spending goes to those in need and is not exploited by corporate executives or profiteers. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) therefore urges members of Congress to take the following set of five recommendations to guarantee meaningful oversight and effective transparency, and to protect whistleblowers on the front lines of the pandemic, while preventing exploitation of recovery funds and violations of America’s constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Only in this way can we guarantee that tax dollars are getting to the right people at the right time to save as many lives as possible, and prevent abuses of power that threaten our most vulnerable populations.

Meaningful Oversight

The most effective model for codifying oversight into a recovery bill would be based on the successful provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5), which created and set aside $84 million for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. That oversight board limited fraud to 0.001% of the nearly $800 billion used to stimulate the economy.

Any board Congress creates to oversee emergency spending must have the same tools used by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to coordinate and conduct oversight of covered funds to prevent fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption. Similarly, the new board must have the same functions and powers, and must maintain a public website so everyone can see where and for what purpose economic stimulus spending is directed and used.

Effective Transparency

Congress must require as much transparency as possible about where the money is going. For example, any recipient of more than $50,000 in emergency coronavirus-related funding or support, including contractors and grantees, at any level, and loan recipients, must provide quarterly, public reporting about how that money is being used to address the crisis. Any entity that receives funding should provide data on the economic impacts of said funding on employment, estimated economic growth, and other key economic impact factors. Finally, Congress should include mechanisms in the bill to ensure that such reporting can occur electronically.

Whistleblower Protection

Now more than ever, the ability of whistleblowers on the front lines of this crisis to ring the alarm on waste, illegality, and dangers to public health and safety is a matter of life and death. Whistleblowers can expose abuse at its earliest stages, before the damage is felt. But Congress must afford whistleblowers, at all levels of government and within the private sector, access to due process relief for protection from retaliation. This measure should explicitly reiterate existing law which protects whistleblowers for disclosing specific and substantial concerns about policies that would negatively impact public health and safety. It also should allow for access to jury trials in cases where administrative relief is delayed or denied.

Preventing Exploitation

This legislation should focus funding on helping people who are most in need, not on lining the pockets of corporate executives or bailing out companies with proven records of mismanaging funds. For example, there should not be a bailout for Boeing, as the company’s problems stemmed from mismanagement, not the ongoing pandemic.

It is also imperative that Congress preempt those who seek to profit off of recovery funds at the expense of those in need. Transparency is critical in assuring that those who would unduly profit can’t operate in the shadows.

Protecting Constitutional Rights

Under no circumstances should this bill authorize indefinite detention of individuals or suspension of the operation of federal courts, or codify limits on the right to seek asylum. The writ of habeas corpus cannot be suspended in a domestic health emergency. Further, domestic law enforcement and intelligence services already possess extraordinary powers, and the federal courts already handle difficult questions concerning pretrial detention of individuals on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with due process and the Bill of Rights. A massive spending bill is no place to insert, without ample debate, measures that would suspend constitutional rights.