SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill called the CARES Act was passed with multiple overlapping accountability mechanisms designed to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. But even as congressional talks continue about an additional coronavirus relief package, which could be a trillion dollars or more, government watchdogs are pointing out breakdowns in the current system. While the law had strong oversight measures, they say the implementation has been poor, leaving the door open to misconduct. NPR's Tim Mak has more.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: The CARES Act created stringent reporting requirements, a commission appointed by Congress and a council of inspectors general called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee or PRAC. After the CARES Act passed in March, the White House Office of Management and Budget put out a memo - M-20-21. The benign-sounding memo laid out how the various agencies involved in the coronavirus response should report spending. The relief package laid out stringent reporting requirements.
LIZ HEMPOWICZ: Tell the government how many jobs you've been able to create or maintain because of this funding, you know? What are the projects that you've received this funding for? Describe them. Who are the subcontractors you're going to be working with? - things like that.
MAK: That's Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight. She claims that the memo says the opposite, that the OMB is telling agencies they don't need to collect additional information beyond what they've traditionally done. Oversight is only as good as the information agencies provide the overseers, said Craig Holman, who works with the watchdog group, Public Citizen.
CRAIG HOLMAN: PRAC is not getting the type of data that it needs to monitor this. This is the biggest spending program, you know, this nation's ever seen in recent history. And we really are not monitoring how that money's being spent.
MAK: Through a spokesman, the OMB said that it would, quote, "continue to work closely with the PRAC to ensure proper reporting and transparency." Meanwhile, other problems have arisen. The CARES Act set up the PRAC and gave inspectors general the duty of picking their leader. They selected Glenn Fine, who was then the acting inspector general of the Pentagon. After this election, the president removed Fine from his position, making him ineligible to lead the Council of Inspectors General. Jennifer Ahearn, policy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said this sent a message.
JENNIFER AHEARN: What that says is that the administration would like to take every opportunity to kneecap the ability of these independent actors to exercise their oversight authorities.
MAK: The coronavirus relief legislation also created the CARES Commission, a five-person body appointed by leaders in Congress to oversee $500 billion in Treasury Department and Federal Reserve spending. It has been operating for months without a chair. Three sources familiar with the decision told NPR Tuesday night that Gen. Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the leading candidate to chair the commission, had withdrawn from consideration. Here's Hempowicz again.
HEMPOWICZ: The fact that there's still no chair is really, you know, baffling. They're really not able to do the kind of aggressive oversight that they were created to do until they have a chair.
MAK: Ultimately, the language of the CARES Act was written with the intent of preventing misconduct, but the implementation has surfaced new problems. With Congress now discussing another relief package that could be worth more than $1 trillion, watchdogs want these oversight issues fixed.
Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARMY OF THE PHARAOHS SONG, "TEAR IT DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.