ECONOMY

As Trillions Flow Out the Door, Stimulus Oversight Faces Challenges

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have unleashed more than $5 trillion in relief aid over the past year to help businesses and individuals through the pandemic downturn. But the scale of that effort is placing serious strain on a patchwork oversight network created to ferret out waste and fraud.

The Biden administration has taken steps to improve accountability and oversight safeguards spurned by the Trump administration, including more detailed and frequent reporting requirements for those receiving funds. But policing the money has been complicated by long-running turf battles; the lack of a centralized, fully functional system to track how funds are being spent; and the speed with which the government has tried to disburse aid.

The scope of oversight is vast, with the Biden administration policing the tail end of the relief money disbursed by the Trump administration last year in addition to the $1.9 trillion rescue package that Democrats approved in March. Much of that money is beginning to flow out the door, including $21.6 billion in rental assistance funds, $350 billion to state and local governments, $29 billion for restaurants and a $16 billion grant fund for live-event businesses like theaters and music clubs.

The funds are supposed to be tracked by a hodgepodge of overseers, including congressional panels, inspectors general and the White House budget office. But the system has been plagued by disagreements and, until recently, disarray.

President Biden has tapped a longtime economic adviser, Gene Sperling, as his pandemic relief czar. Mr. Sperling who twice headed the National Economic Council, has been racing to stand up the oversight architecture and is relying heavily on the investigative powers of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a panel of inspectors general, in addition to the Government Accountability Office and the administration’s Office of Management and Budget.

“When you have a rescue plan, there is going to be a certain amount of tension between aspiring for perfection and meeting the law’s fundamental aims to move funds out in time to cut child poverty, keep people in their homes, save small businesses, restaurants and child care centers,” Mr. Sperling said in an interview. “You just have to do everything in your power to strike a rigorous and right balance.”

But the scattering of oversight functions has led to conflict and complicated surveillance.

In late April, Brian D. Miller, whom President Donald J. Trump appointed to serve as the Treasury Department’s special inspector general for pandemic recovery, released a scathing report accusing other Treasury officials of blocking him from conducting more extensive investigations.

Mr. Miller was selected to oversee relief programs managed by the Treasury Department, but the agency’s officials believed his role was to track only a $500 billion pot of money for the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs and funds for airlines and companies that are critical to national security. Mr. Miller said that Treasury officials were initially cooperative during the Trump administration, but that after the transition to the new administration started, his access to information dried up.

After Mr. Miller’s requests for program data were denied, he appealed to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which ruled against him last month. His team of 42 people has been left with little to do.

“Rather than trying to squeeze people out, I think we should welcome everybody if they want to roll up their sleeves and perform oversight,” Mr. Miller said in an interview.

White House officials dismissed his concerns and insisted that they remained committed to robust oversight and transparency. The Treasury Department maintained that Mr. Miller was trying to operate outside his jurisdiction and said it would “continue to make sure all of our inspectors general, congressional committees of jurisdiction and other oversight bodies have the information they need.”

“President Biden has made crystal clear to his team that oversight is a key priority,” said Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff. “That means coordination and integration across the whole of government to ensure that taxpayer funds are being spent as intended and in service of the needs of the American people.”

So far, major instances of fraud and waste represent a relatively small percentage of the 2020 initiatives and have been largely confined to small business lending efforts, like the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. But federal oversight experts and watchdog groups say the exact scale of problems in the $2 trillion bipartisan stimulus relief bill in March 2020 is virtually impossible to determine because of insufficient oversight and accountability reporting.

Mr. Miller has been pursuing cases of business owners double dipping from various pots of relief money, such as airlines taking small-business loans and also receiving payroll support funds. The Small Business Administration’s inspector general said last year that the agency “lowered the guardrails” and that 15,000 economic disaster loans totaling $450 million were fraudulent.

The Government Accountability Office also placed the small-business lending programs on its “high risk” watch list in March, warning that a lack of information about the recipients of aid and inadequate safeguards could lead to many more problems than have been reported. The report identified “deficiencies within all components of internal control” in the Small Business Administration’s oversight and concluded that officials “must show stronger program integrity controls and better management.”

The Government Accountability Office flagged 896,000 errors by lenders that were not investigated by the Small Business Administration and cited problems with the oversight of loan approvals, follow-up reporting and the monitoring of contractors. The agency, now run by Biden appointees, recently responded with a proposal to revamp many, but not all, of its procedures.

Oversight veterans and some lawmakers say they want to see a more cohesive approach and more transparency from the Biden administration.

“It is just staggering how little oversight there is,” said Neil M. Barofsky, who was the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program from 2008 to 2011. “Not because of the fault of the people who are there, but because of the failure to empower them and give them the opportunity to do their jobs.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said she had pushed hard for more oversight last year because she believed that Trump administration officials had conflicts of interest. Despite improvements, she said, the Biden administration could be doing more.

“I kept pushing for more oversight — we got some of it, but not all of what we need,” Ms. Warren said. “We are talking hundreds of billions here.”

She added: “The Biden administration is definitely doing better, but there’s no substitute for transparency and oversight — and we can always do better.”

In a closed-door meeting with Mr. Sperling, a policymaker with limited oversight experience, Mr. Biden issued a blunt directive: “You better work closely with I.G.s, like I did,” he said, according to a person to whom Mr. Sperling later relayed the story. Later, at his first cabinet meeting, the president pressed his appointees to cooperate with oversight officials.

White House officials said the current oversight system, which relies most heavily on the independent inspectors general already working in federal agencies, was operating efficiently, even with occasional turf battles.

Mr. Sperling is holding regular meetings with Michael E. Horowitz, who leads the pandemic relief committee, along with officials at the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Management and Budget. They are also requiring states and localities to publish performance reports that explain how they money they received is being used.

But Mr. Biden’s team is equally concerned about imposing too many burdens on hard-hit recipients, and Mr. Sperling is especially worried about the slow pace of programs intended to speed $25 billion for emergency housing relief passed last year.

Watchdog groups are wary that speed could sacrifice accountability.

Under Mr. Trump, the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for setting policy in federal agencies, refused to comply with all the reporting requirements in the 2020 stimulus that called for it to collect and release data about businesses that borrowed money under the small-business lending programs.

To some observers, Mr. Biden’s budget office has not moved quickly enough to reverse the Trump-era policy. Instead, Mr. Sterling’s team is working on a complex set of benchmarks — tailored to individual programs included in the $1.9 trillion relief bill — which will be released one by one in the coming months.

“When it came to recipient reporting, the Trump administration said, ‘We don’t need to do any of this,’” said Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan oversight group. “We are seeing improvement under the Biden administration, but they are also basically saying, ‘We’re not going to collect this information either.’ That’s not good enough.”

Since last year, Mr. Horowitz, whose group includes the 22 inspectors general, has argued that detailed expenditure information is needed to make adjustments in the criteria, targeting and design of future aid efforts.

“We need sufficient data that would allow us to be able to assess impact and effects,” he said in an interview. “Did this deliver the kind of support that was intended? You need to know that, beyond the obvious question of whether or not people stole money.”

Some of the overseers have also struggled with internal disagreements. The Congressional Oversight Commission, a bipartisan group set up to track how Treasury is using money for Federal Reserve lending facilities and other funds, became stymied by disagreements about a program to prop up struggling state and local governments.

Its legally mandated report to Congress was delayed for weeks, and a member of the panel, Bharat Ramamurti, accused his Republican colleagues of stalling the group’s work. Mr. Ramamurti has since left to work for the Biden administration, and the five-person panel now has three commissioners and no chair. Its latest report was only 19 pages.

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