Corrupted: Roll Up Your Sleeves, Washington

No matter who occupies the White House and Congress next year, work must begin now on a renewed pandemic response effort that avoids past mistakes.

Congress and the White House were unable to agree on a new COVID-19 response bill ahead of the election. And whoever takes the oath of office—on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—in January will face a worsening public health crisis. So Washington needs to immediately get back to work and come up with epidemiological and economic plans of action to tackle the ongoing pandemic.

Any legislation appropriating more COVID-19 funding must include safeguards that ensure the money goes where it is most needed. Those safeguards should focus on five systemic areas: transparency, conflicts of interest, accessibility, scientific integrity, and whistleblower support.

Increase Transparency

The administration has not been forthcoming about its COVID-19 spending decisions or about the vaccine and treatment development process.

The lack of transparency into the vaccine development and approval process has undermined the public’s trust in the eventual vaccine. As part of its effort to earn back that trust, in future contracts with drug companies, the government should not use Other Transaction Agreements, a contracting process that has kept some of the Operation Warp Speed vaccine contracts secret. More policymakers should urge drug companies to publicize more information about their vaccine trials to help ease Americans’ safety concerns.

The executive branch must also follow existing transparency laws and release the names of the companies that received Paycheck Protection Program loans under $150,000 (POGO has filed a lawsuit to obtain this data). The Office of Management and Budget should rescind its April guidance directing agencies not to collect all of the relevant data on how recipients use funds, and should instead implement more rigorous requirements for federal agencies’ reporting.

There’s also data missing on other key programs, such as the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, and the administration should release the names of the farms that received that aid.

The government should also require more transparency regarding hospital capacity and COVID-19 outbreaks at schools, correctional facilities, and in private sector workplaces. The more information we share about infection spread and the status of health care facilities’ resource capacity, the more easily we can keep the virus from spreading.

Root Out Cronyism and Conflicts of Interest

We’ve examined numerous examples of cronyism and conflicts of interest that at worst impede the pandemic response and at best undermine public trust in government. For example, the task force convened by senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner to procure much-needed personal protective equipment prioritized White House allies, several of whom landed lucrative pandemic response contracts despite a glaring lack of relevant experience.

The ad hoc nature of both Kushner’s task force and Operation Warp Speed means that certain officials can skirt federal government transparency and ethics requirements. We know recruits for both efforts had conflicts of interest, but we are unable to see the full extent of them.

To root out cronyism going forward, the administration should ensure that pandemic task forces and advisory panels are subject to ethics laws and rules, and should rigorously enforce those requirements to prevent response efforts from being improperly influenced by those with financial conflicts of interest.

And to the maximum extent possible, the government should competitively award contracts to ensure taxpayer dollars go to the most qualified, not the most well-connected. The government needs to responsibly oversee those contracts and the award process by more thoroughly screening companies for experience and past legal history, and by closely monitoring contractors’ work to ensure taxpayers get what they paid for.

Prioritize Those in Need, Not Those with Deep Pockets

Several programs established to help struggling small businesses and their workers did not actually achieve those goals as promised. Far too much money appears to have been lost to fraudsters and companies that didn’t need help.

As we’ve written before, the Paycheck Protection Program favored the well-banked, well-lawyered companies that swooped in quickly and received an unfair share of the loans. This makes it all the more important for Congress to reject proposals to automatically forgive some of the loans without any further oversight. Before converting any loans to grants, the government should ensure that recipients used the funds to keep workers on payroll, as the program required. We have proposed several recommendations for Congress if it reauthorizes the program, including implementing stricter requirements for loan applicants and prioritizing women- and minority-owned businesses.

On top of this, we saw how the Federal Reserve’s programs have helped big companies far more than main street businesses and municipal governments. The Fed should continue to retool its Main Street Lending program to make it more accessible for small businesses, and should rework the Municipal Liquidity Facility to help states avoid laying off workers and cutting programs. If the Fed fails to act, Congress should reallocate the unused funding that had been set aside for the Fed’s programs and provide it as direct aid to states and businesses.

Policymakers must do more to hold companies accountable for putting their workers’ health and safety at risk during the pandemic. Congress should be wary of proposals that would grant coronavirus liability protections to grossly negligent employers, and should consider more stringent penalties for companies that violate health and safety standards.

Rely on Science and Facts

Trump political appointees hampered the COVID-19 response by meddling in the work of career government scientists, preventing the health agencies from conveying important information about the virus to the public, and undermining Americans’ trust in the vaccine development process.

The government must base its pandemic response decisions on science, which requires leaving its own epidemiologists and public health experts in charge of that response and insulating them from political influence.

The president must rescind a dangerous new executive order that will likely make it easier to fire or otherwise retaliate against government employees who criticize or disagree with their bosses. The order could also be used to embed administration loyalists in positions that would carry over to a new administration. Federal civil service hiring and firing procedures were created to ensure the government hires only qualified, competent employees and to protect them from being removed or demoted without good reason.

Protect Whistleblowers

Finally, Congress should enact stronger protections for whistleblowers to ensure that government and contractor employees feel comfortable reporting corruption and other wrongdoing without fearing for their jobs. Without whistleblowers like Rick Bright, we might not know about White House attempts to push unproven and unsafe COVID-19 treatments. Congress should allow whistleblowers to take retaliation claims to jury trials and should bar retaliatory investigations.