More than a month after Congress approved a historic $2.2 trillion coronavirus recovery package, a patchwork of overlapping oversight bodies created to keep tabs on the funds have yet to get up and running even as hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency funds have been doled out.
In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Congress has approved four emergency relief plans, including the gargantuan CARES Act on March 27 and a nearly $500 billion supplementary package approved just last week.
The size and complexity of the funding led Congress to establish three oversight entities under the CARES Act: a special inspector general for pandemic recovery, a separate panel of inspectors general and a five-member Congressional Oversight Commission.
Four weeks out, none of the oversight entities is fully functional, leaving hundreds of billions of dollars to flow out of government coffers with little oversight.
What is more, with members of Congress out of town, the legislative branch has been unable to wield one of its most potent oversight tools: summoning officials to answer questions in open hearings.
"We've all but missed the opportunity to conduct oversight in real time as money is going out the door," said Liz Hempowicz, Director of Public Policy at the Project for Government Oversight.
Between rebate checks sent to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits to states and loans to small businesses, at least $1.5 trillion has been spent to date, according to Romina Boccia of the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Overall, Congress has authorized more than $2 trillion of stimulus spending and loans.
"What we don't know is how many of the big business loans have been made and also how much money the Federal Reserve is lending," Boccia said.
Here is a look at the multiple oversight bodies and where they stand.
Special COVID Inspector General
The CARES Act stimulus package established a "Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery" to oversee $500 billion allocated for airlines and other large businesses.
Trump's nominee for the position, White House lawyer Brian Miller, faces stiff opposition from Democrats who say Miller is too close to the administration to serve as an independent watchdog over how the government spends billions of dollars. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called Miller "the wrong type of person to choose for this position."
It is unclear when the Senate will take up Miller's nomination. Even before he nominated Miller, Trump, in a signing document, questioned the scope of the inspector general's mandate, raising concerns about his administration's willingness to cooperate with his office.
Pandemic Recovery Accountability Committee
This is a separate panel of 20 inspectors general, tasked with oversight of all coronavirus recovery funds and the government's response.
Its members are drawn from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), an umbrella organization of 75 federal inspectors general.
The committee lacks a chairman since Trump ousted the nominee to head the panel, then-acting Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine. It is unclear when the position will be filled. But on Monday, the committee announced Robert A. Westbrooks as its executive director to run its day-to-day operations.
The committee will, in part, coordinate audits and investigations carried out by various agency watchdogs.
Congressional Oversight Commission
Like the special inspector general, this five-member panel, established under the CARES Act, will be charged with keeping tabs on the $500 billion corporate fund controlled by the Treasury Department.
In recent weeks, four commission members – two Democrats and two Republicans – have been appointed, yet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have yet to settle on a candidate to chair the commission.
For weeks, Bharat Ramamurti, a former staffer to Democrat Senator and erstwhile presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, served as the commission's sole member and public face. He was credited with getting the Federal Reserve to make a major transparency commitment: agreeing to disclose monthly the names of loan recipients and their terms.
House Select Committee
Saying an additional lawyer of oversight was needed, House Democrats voted last week to establish a select committee to oversee the government response to the pandemic. With seven Democratic and five Republican members, the committee will have broad authority to investigate the administration's use of the funds.
While Democrats say the panel will serve as an overall watchdog over the recovery funds, administration officials and congressional Republicans have remained opposed, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy dismissing it as "redundant."
Other oversight activities
Even as the new oversight bodies struggle to get off the ground, watchdogs at several key federal agencies involved in the pandemic response, including the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Justice as well as the Small Business Administration, already have opened COVID-related inquiries.
"Our office has been actively preparing for and performing oversight relative to the CARES Act," said Sheldon Shoemaker, an assistant inspector general for the Small Business Administration.
Last week, the SBA inspector general opened separate reviews of two lending programs funded under the CARES Act, Shoemaker said. In addition, the inspector general's office has been working with federal prosecutors to combat fraud, he said.
SBA Inspector General Hannibal "Mike" Ware, who is a member of the pandemic recovery committee, is expected to release his first report in early May.
The Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress which received $20 million for COVID-19 oversight, has launched multiple views and audits into a variety of issues, from student loan relief efforts to paycheck protection programs to the use of funds by various agencies.
"We hit the ground running as soon as the act was passed," said Nicole Angela Clowers, the managing director of the health care team at the GAO.