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By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Jon Tester (Image source: Public domain)
One of the concerns the Senate Democrats had before ultimately passing the coronavirus stimulus package last week was how a $500 billion funding program for businesses would be handled by the Trump administration. They weren't very trusting of the administration to decide who would get the funding. They insisted on including a stipulation that a special inspector general position be created as a caretaker of the program.
Three senior Senate Democrats are asking Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to honor the terms of the bill and quickly establish the independent oversight of the funding. They are especially concerned with Trump making moves after he signed the bill to limit the power of the new inspector general.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) first suggested a need for stronger accountability and transparency with the stimulus package. He followed this by ensuring the legislation includes a special inspector general to oversee distribution of the $500 billion to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.
He wanted limits on corporate loans, to prevent "secret bailouts," and for the special inspector to oversee the Treasury Department's allocation of funding.
"This is the largest stimulus package Congress has ever passed — we're talking trillions of taxpayer dollars — so it's absolutely critical that relief makes its way into the pockets of small businesses, workers, and other folks who keep our economy running," explained Tester.
"A bill of this size without transparency or accountability would have been a slap in the face to the hardworking Montanans whose livelihoods are on the line," he added. "So while this bill is far from perfect, the special watchdog tasked with ensuring these funds will be spent more responsibly will help give Montana taxpayers some peace of mind."
On Friday, however, Trump released a signing statement that questioned the constitutionality of the requirement that the special inspector general notify Congress if the administration "unreasonably" withholds information that investigators are requesting. The statement said the administration will not allow the watchdog to inform Congress without "presidential supervision," referring to it as a violation of executive branch authority.
"I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [inspector general] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause, Article II, section 3," reads the White House statement.
Many of the terms in the package were brokered between Democrats and Mnuchin. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent Mnuchin a letter, sounding the alarm over Trump's signing statement, which has been interpreted by some to be an attempt to weaken the power of the new position.
The law stipulates the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery will be nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate. This person will be tasked with monitoring how the Treasury Department doles out loans and loan guarantees to businesses.
The three Senators note that Mnuchin "personally agreed" to the oversight provisions in the law and are insisting that he carry out those provisions. While Treasury officials are trying to quickly implement the law this week, White House officials haven't done anything with regard to nominating anyone for this position.
"You, on behalf of the Administration, negotiated and agreed to the scope and terms of the SIGPR authority, both generally to Congress and to each of us personally," the three senators wrote.
"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. ... 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's imperative that you defend it."
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