It’s the highest-profile job listing in Washington these days: being the public face of one of the biggest government accountability projects in U.S. history.
The gig entails five years of exhaustive work to safeguard trillions of taxpayer dollars. The successful applicant will have years of experience in public service, comfort with constant public criticism, and a vision for the job that’s acceptable to two sworn political adversaries with an abysmal working relationship.
And the job’s main deliverable is nothing short of ensuring that a program meant to haul the U.S. economy back from the worst crisis since the Great Depression works as intended.
Nobody said that the job in question—chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee established to oversee the enormous federal effort to rescue the economy from COVID-19—would be cushy. And few thought that the process of filling the post would be, either, given that the person would have to satisfy both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
But few thought the process would be this hard: more than two months after the CARES Act passed, a chair for the oversight panel created by the law has not been named, because Pelosi and McConnell have not yet agreed on a chair, as required by the legislation. Some potential contenders’ names have filtered out to the press, but candidates are still being reviewed by the two leaders. Neither leader’s office provided an update to The Daily Beast on the selection process. The last time Pelosi addressed the matter publicly was May 5, when she said a chair would be named “soon.”
That delay is surprising and disturbing to the lawmakers, aides, and oversight experts who have watched as this enormous federal relief effort launches without one of the most important safeguards fully in place to ensure it works as intended. Though the panel currently has four of five members—they released a preliminary commission report in May—the lack of a chair renders the body unable to meet most of its obligations with the levels of staff and structure it needs, say experts.
That’s troubling enough for many, but others see Pelosi and McConnell’s apparent inability to get behind a candidate as a graver signal that both sides aren’t making oversight of the COVID-19 economic package a priority.
“Until they give a legitimate reason for this process being so incredibly slow, I keep coming back to the fact that Pelosi and McConnell were hands-on in the drafting of CARES,” said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project for Government Oversight, a good-government organization. “This responsibility that they agree on a chair was not a surprise to either of them…You can’t create oversight mechanisms, leave them to wither and die, and then take credit for creating oversight mechanisms.”
As the delay drags on, some on Capitol Hill are wondering who might be an ideal fit for the gig—or who in the world of politics might find this gig even close to ideal. “There may have been a few candidates who have been close. This is a really tough job and it’s a thankless job,” said an aide familiar with the commission’s operations.
“It’s tough to find someone who’s ready, willing, and able to step into that role. It’s a limited universe of folks, and there’s a big demand,” the aide continued. “It’s a heavy load that’s going to be placed on their shoulders.”
When the chair is named, they will lead a five-member commission that’s tasked with holding Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and the Federal Reserve Bank, accountable for their handling of some $500 billion in taxpayer dollars for economic recovery.
That’s a narrower mandate than other entities in the new field of pandemic oversight: the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee set up in CARES, for example, is a panel of agency inspectors general tracking that all $2.2 trillion in spending, from relief for hospitals and nursing homes to loans for small businesses, were spent appropriately.
But the mandate does set the panel—and the chair, in particular—on a collision course with Mnuchin and other powerful allies of President Trump. Lawmakers, especially Democrats, fought hard to establish the commission as a guardrail and check on Mnuchin in particular. Aside for $50 billion set aside specifically for the airline industry, Trump’s loyal Treasury chief has discretion to handle $450 billion in loans, loan guarantees, and other spending to aid businesses as well as state and local governments. That appropriation could be leveraged to generate over $2 trillion in capital, experts have estimated.
That money is moving out the doors more slowly than other federal relief, such as roughly $600 billion in loans for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program. That finding was, in fact, detailed in the 17-page report released in May by the commission’s four existing members: Democratic appointees Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL) and former Elizabeth Warren advisor Bharat Rhamamurti, and GOP appointees Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Rep. French Hill (R-AR).
Though missing a chair, the four forged ahead with a document to meet the requirement in the CARES Act that they release a report every 30 days. It was largely a list of questions about Treasury’s stewardship of the funds, serving to lay out what the panel’s main areas of focus will be.
“In short, this Commission is responsible for answering two basic questions,” wrote the members. “What are the Treasury and the Fed doing with $500 billion of taxpayer money? Who is that money helping?”
It’s a similar set of questions that a similar panel asked a decade ago, when Congress spent $700 billion to bail out U.S. financial institutions in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. The CARES commission,in fact, was explicitly modeled on the panel that oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program—a project that ran for years and attracted significant public scrutiny.
One of the congressional TARP oversight board’s members, AFL-CIO general counsel Damon Silvers, told The Daily Beast that the four members of the CARES commission are doing the best they can but “they can’t get the job done without a chair, effectively.”
For starters, exact funding for the panel—which is only specified in the CARES Act as having an equal amount come from each chamber—is yet to be determined, and without a chair to set the course, commission members are left to do the initial work of oversight without dedicated staff members.
“No matter how smart and experienced the committee members are, this is too complicated for four people, several of whom have rather heavy day jobs,” said Silvers. “Not having a chair really weakens the panel’s ability to get information from bodies it’s overseeing and hamstrings the commission in terms of hiring staff, which is essential.”
An aide familiar with the commission confirmed that concern. “We’re doing everything we can, but as lending ramps up from these programs and we see more outflows of cash, it’s going to get harder and harder to have members of staff for the respective appointees handle the additional workload,” said the aide.
Though observers say there are people who are interested in chairing the panel, the universe of people who’d be acceptable to both Pelosi and McConnell is vanishingly small. The type of person described as a good candidate by experts—independent, distinguished, trusted on both sides of the aisle—is a rare commodity in today’s Washington.
Silvers, for his part, insisted there exists a cadre of people with reputations for nonpartisanship, public spiritedness and financial sophistication who could fit the bill—he mentioned as an example Bill McDonough, the late president of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Last month, media reports floated Sheila Bair—president of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation under Presidents Bush and Obama—as a possible chair, though her interest is unconfirmed.
“The list of people who meet that qualification,” says POGO’s Hempowicz, “is really short.”