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Stimulus oversight panel has 1 person watching $2.2 trillion alone

Joshua Green
Bloomberg News

Washington — On April 6, Bharat Ramamurti became the first person named to the Congressional Oversight Commission supposed to police the massive coronavirus relief fund. A former top staffer for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Ramamurti expected to have company — the new law requires congressional leaders to appoint a five-member panel.

He’s still waiting.

As tens of billions of taxpayer dollars from the $2.2 trillion relief bill begin flowing out the door, Ramamurti remains the lone member appointed to the panel. With no colleagues, no staff, and no office, he’s had to rely on one of the few avenues he has to communicate with the public: his unverified Twitter feed.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

“I’m eager for the commission members to be named and for us to get up and running,” he says. “In the meantime, I’m trying to perform some oversight and use what tools I have available right now to start asking some basic questions. Money is moving around in the blink of an eye, and it’s not at all clear what it all means and who it’s helping.”

Days after his appointment by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, Ramamurti’s solo act got even tougher. On April 9, the Federal Reserve, in coordination with the Treasury Department, announced the rollout of the “Main Street Lending Facility,” one of the key pillars of the government’s relief effort that will provide loans to companies with up to 10,000 employees or up to $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the new program “will make a significant difference for the 40,000 medium-sized businesses that employ 35 million Americans.” The Main Street Lending Program is funded with $75 billion from the $500 billion that the CARES Act allotted to the Treasury to backstop Fed loans.

Under the new law, the disbursement of Treasury funds triggers a countdown clock that requires the oversight commission to produce its first public report within 30 days. “It’s a statutory requirement,” Ramamurti said, “so I think one way or another there’s going to have to be a report by early May.”

Lacking a better option, Ramamurti took to Twitter to react to the new Fed programs and give the public an idea of what sorts of questions the commission — that is, he — would try to address in its initial report. “I hate to be that guy pointing you to his tweets,” he said, “but I put out 9 or 10 questions on a bunch of the new actions. It would be great to start providing answers. It’s important because the money, and the economic crisis, is moving so quickly that you want to be able to exercise proper oversight.”

The issue of stronger oversight was one of the key battles fought as Congress raced to pass the CARES Act in late March. After a late push by Democrats, lawmakers agreed to split the job between a special inspector general and the five-member congressional accountability committee — a setup modeled after the Warren-led committee that oversaw the $700 billion bank bailout in the 2008 financial crisis.

The new law gives congressional leaders responsibility for choosing the panel’s members: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Schumer each can appoint one member of the oversight commission; a fifth member, the chairperson, is appointed jointly by Pelosi and McConnell. So far, however, only Schumer has made an appointment. Staff for the other congressional leaders couldn’t say when others might be named. On April 10, Pelosi told Politico that while she and McConnell had discussed a process for selecting a chairperson, they did not yet have a shortlist of candidates. Meanwhile, the 30-day clock for the commission to produce its first oversight report is ticking.

The job of overseeing the current bailout could be more difficult than it was in 2008. On April 7, President Donald Trump fired the acting inspector general for the Defense Department, Glenn A. Fine, who was known for his independence and set to become the head of a team of U.S. auditors overseeing the $2.2 trillion bailout.

Fine’s firing disqualifying him from serving on the new oversight panel. Trump tapped a perceived loyalist, White House lawyer Brian D. Miller, to become special inspector general for pandemic recovery.

Ramamurti says the firing makes filling the congressional oversight panel an even more urgent task. “It underscores the importance of the commission,” he says. “We’re insulated from that kind of action because all five members are selected by Congress, so Trump and his administration don’t have any ability to choose or fire the members. To me, it’s just another reason we should get up and running as quickly as possible.”