The last federal coronavirus relief bill, coming in at $2.2 trillion, is the largest stimulus bill in U.S. history. Rep. Dean Phillips wanted to make sure the money gets used in the way it’s intended.
That’s why Phillips wrote a bill, The COVID-19 Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) Act, that was included in the final 880 page legislative package that landed on the President Donald Trump’s desk. Phillips’ bill creates a Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR) to audit spending under the relief program and a congressional oversight panel.
But even as Trump signed the overall bill, he suggested that the oversight provisions authored by Phillips could be sidestepped by the White House.
“I do not understand, and my administration will not treat this provision as permitting the SIGPR to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required,” the president’s signing statement reads. Put in a different way, the White House concluded that the special inspector general’s reports would be filtered through the White House first, potentially delaying Congress’ access to oversight information indefinitely.
“I’m disappointed,” Phillips said in an interview on Wednesday afternoon. “He sure wasted no time trying to challenge what most of us Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate believe are important accountability mechanisms and oversight of the most massive distribution of tax payer dollars in human history.”
How the bill is supposed to work
The SIGPR position in Phillips’ legislation mirrors the special inspector general created to oversee 2008’s Wall Street bailout: the Troubled Asset Relief Program (commonly known as TARP).
Appointed by the president with consent from the Senate, the inspector general’s authority is broad: They can audit and investigate the sale of loans, loan guarantees, and investments made by the Secretary of Treasury in accordance with the bill. They can also issue subpoenas, as well as seek arrests and warrants. The office must submit reports to Congress quarterly. The office must also report back when any information is unreasonably denied.
Senate Democrats argue that contrary to the president’s signing statement, the position was created to submit reports to Congress “without delay.”
The second component, the congressional oversight panel, is responsible for overseeing the larger corporate bailout doled out by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, reviewing loans, loans, guarantees, and investments.Unlike the SIGPR, the panel would have no authority to issue subpoenas. TARP also had a congressional oversight panel, which was notably chaired by of now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
The language in the bill calls for the new panel to have of five members: one appointed by the Speaker of the House, one appointed by the Minority Leader of the House, one appointed by the Senate Majority Leader, one appointed by the Senate Minority Leader, and a Chair appointed by both the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, with consultation from both minority leaders.
Prominent government oversight advocates were incensed by the president’s signing statement.
Rebecca Jones, policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, said on Twitter: “Taxpayers should be furious about this … What if the statement said: “I don’t understand these stimulus checks. I don’t recognize them and so Treasury won’t issue?”
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, Urban Affairs, was the lead author of a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Mnuchin was responsible for negotiating the Senate bill for Republicans and is also responsible for overseeing much of the bailout. In the letter, Senators requested Mnuchin take the inspector general position seriously.
“This oversight authority was critical for gaining support for your request for over $500 billion to aid struggling companies, states, municipalities, and other troubled entities. Provision of these funds was conditioned on the SIGPR’s creation,” the letter reads. “As such, the SIGPR’s unfettered operation is not only a legal necessity, but also a condition you personally agreed to – SIGPR’s structure is your structure, and it imperative that you defend it.”
On Fox News, Mnuchin said that the signing statement did not violate and does not compromise transparency: “There’s constitutional issues and we’re going to have full transparency and the way this works is we have full transparency and reporting what we’re doing to the American public.”
Phillips disagrees. If anything, he said, the oversight built into the legislation is not partisan and conservatives should have a vested interest in ensuring that oversight works as written. “I would argue that conservatives throughout the country who keep a very close eye in how the federal government appropriates and employs taxpayer dollars will be as loud as any constituency in the demand for that oversight.”
Phillips also said that, although the president issued the signing statement, it’s not clear if he’ll go through with it. Should Congress need to, he said, they will respond.
“Even though the statement was issued, and was issued quickly, at this stage, no line has been crossed,” Phillips said.
“But we will be watching intently and act accordingly.”