William S. Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project and co-editor of Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People (The New Press, 2020). He previously served as a senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy, and remains an advisor to several policy organizations and think tanks.June 26, 2020
With tens of millions of Americans unemployed and small businesses teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Congress and the Trump Administration have been compelled to push massive amounts of COVID relief money out the door as rapidly as possible – much more rapidly than government is accustomed to working.
Nevertheless, we should expect every dollar to do some good. So it is disappointing that the government is fumbling. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a federal watchdog that Donald Trump can’t fire, reports that as of May 31, the administration had sent $1.4 billion to dead people. Congress appears culpable, too, because it did not remove a legal barrier that denies the Treasury Department, which distributes the funds, full access to the death records maintained by the Social Security Administration.
The good news is that the GAO is doing its job despite Trump’s purging of the government’s other watchdogs and his success at turning the Justice Department into his lapdog. The GAO is watching and reporting how the Administration handles the $3.6 trillion that Congress has appropriated so far in relief for the workers, small businesses, vaccine developers, and medical professionals victimized by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Private-sector watchdogs are on alert, too. The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) has launched a COVID Money Tracker to monitor how the dollars are spent.
It is no surprise that big money attracts fraud and that haste makes waste. There are multiple opportunities for both with so massive an amount of money moving so rapidly through the federal system. For example, the GAO called on the Small Business Administration to watch for cheaters as it distributes its part of the relief money, and there have been big payments to corporations that don’t need the funds. The New York Times has found connections between COVID payments and companies that have invested a lot of money lobbying Congress and sending campaign contributions to partisan groups.
The watchdogs’ ears went up in April and May when Trump removed inspectors general assigned to oversee the initial $2 trillion COVID aid package and a $500 billion blank check to bail out corporations chosen by Trump’s treasury secretary. Trump forfeited the benefit of the doubt long ago by unabashedly profiting politically and personally from the presidency.
Under the process established by Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, agencies have until next month to report how they’ve spent COVID relief funds. So far, the GAO says, the administration has practiced only limited transparency and accountability.
We are counting on the watchdogs to keep sniffing and to howl if they find that COVID relief is being wasted or misused. There is reason for diligence. Trump already has shown he is willing to misuse government money for his reelection. Since he was impeached but not convicted for trying to extort Ukraine, Trump apparently feels he is untouchable. He hasn't hesitated to fire anyone who dares to point out how he is abusing his office. He and his Attorney General have interfered with the justice system to let his helpers get away with breaking the law on his behalf. These are men who accept no boundaries.
There are about four months to the election. On COVID relief and many other issues involving Trump, we can expect a very rough ride.
©William S. Becker. This article originally appeared on Real Biocene on June 25, 2020 and is reprinted here with permission.