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Analysis

We need Congress to watch pandemic spending closely. Here’s how it can do it.

These common-sense steps will help lawmakers keep an eye on trillions of dollars of public funds
(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.

As the federal government spends almost $5 trillion (and counting) of taxpayers’ money on coronavirus relief efforts, Americans are already demanding answers on how the funds are being used and what the federal government is accomplishing. Congress has a duty to shed light on this spending quickly. The House established the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis to do just that, but the subcommittee must establish a clear agenda and work with efficiency to make sure federal dollars are well spent right now.

Congress has a duty to shed light on coronavirus relief spending—quickly.

As experts in congressional oversight, we recommend that the subcommittee immediately take seven common-sense steps to live up to its mission to expose and prevent waste, fraud and abuse.

The need for such vigorous congressional engagement is enormous. In March, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimated that the unemployment rate could climb as high as 32 percent in the second quarter of 2020, topping the 25 percent the nation saw during the Great Depression. In an attempt to head off this potential economic disaster, the federal government is spending or lending unprecedented amounts of money to support the economy. Oversight will be critical to make sure all these funds have their intended effect of helping the American public and economy.

To be effective, the House subcommittee must define a clear investigative agenda aimed at ensuring the relief funds get to the right places. The House select committee on Hurricane Katrina is a good example of why setting a clear focus is necessary. Its narrow mandate to examine the development, coordination and execution of emergency response plans in preparation for Katrina allowed the committee to avoid partisan finger-pointing and stay focused on developing efforts to prevent future crises. Here, Congress must make sure that the money is really going to protect jobs and keep workers safe, that large corporations don’t get loans they don’t truly need, that crony capitalism doesn’t influence who receives assistance and that fraudsters don’t rip off taxpayers.

Second, there is a need for speed. Strong, robust oversight done upfront can help mitigate problems. The subcommittee must make headway before struggling businesses go under, which would put an unbearable burden on working-class families. We were pleased to see that the subcommittee recently sent a spate of letters to large public companies that took funds intended for small businesses, demanding the return of the money. The subcommittee should continue to move rapidly, especially while the other oversight bodies created to do this work are still forming — for example, the Congressional Oversight Commission created by the initial coronavirus response law still lacks a chair.

The subcommittee should be properly staffed with those who have the right technical expertise, ranging from securities to medicine to public health, and experience conducting investigations. The subcommittee has a broad mandate and the numerous lending programs across government are complex, so it’s crucial that members bring aboard the best staff available. Fortunately, there is already a deep bench of expert staffers on Capitol Hill from which to draw. The subcommittee should also consider using detailees from executive branch agencies and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to provide expertise, as the House Katrina committee did.

To be most effective, subcommittee members and investigators must put aside partisan differences, just as the Senate did in the mid-1970s, when the Church Committee — named after Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) — investigated the intelligence community after troubling reports of illegal actions in the United States and abroad. This highly successful bipartisan entity produced numerous reports and paved the way for the creation of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Even in today’s polarized era, Congress often works in a bipartisan fashion on an array of issues, and the new laws providing the coronavirus relief funds are an outstanding example. By working together on the subcommittee, lawmakers and staffers will have credibility and popular support to make these recovery programs more honest and effective. Republican leadership in the House was slow to appoint members to the new subcommittee, and the first wave of letters was signed only by the Democratic members. While we were encouraged to see a full slate of Republican members chosen for the committee, we hope that GOP members participate more fully going forward.

The subcommittee also needs to employ the right methods to obtain its information. First, it should create and publicize a whistleblower hotline as soon as possible. This will provide crucial tips about any instances of waste, fraud or cronyism. The subcommittee should protect the anonymity of whistleblowers who ask for it, so people with information can coming forward without concerns of retaliation. To accomplish this, the subcommittee should work with the newly created House Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman to follow best practices for whistleblower intake.

The subcommittee also needs the ability to issue and enforce subpoenas. When government agencies and private companies don’t supply requested information, the subcommittee should not hesitate to exercise its authority to compel responses from corporate and government actors. Such a mandatory process most recently worked to secure testimony from a stream of witnesses in the Ukraine impeachment inquiry who would not otherwise have appeared. (One of us, Norm Eisen, was special counsel to the Judiciary Committee for the impeachment and trial of President Trump.)

If recipients don’t comply with subpoenas, the subcommittee should enforce these subpoenas to the fullest extent of the law. This means assessing all options — including considering use of the House’s inherent contempt power if all other recourse fails. We hope this will not be necessary, given the importance of this work, but Congress must use its full authority to hold the executive branch and private companies accountable. This is especially true in light of Trump’s demonstrated disdain for oversight.