The largest taxpayer outlay in U.S. history is shaping up to be one of the most secretive. It’s a bad combination. The Trump administration, which has resisted congressional oversight of its distribution of coronavirus relief funds, now says it has no intention of telling the public which businesses are tapping more than a half-trillion dollars in forgivable pandemic loans. As Politico reports, at least four members of Congress have personally benefited. Recipients include Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler — who recently voted against requiring more disclosure about recipients.
The funds are meant for small businesses, but major chains have already gamed the system to get at those funds. That’s just one reason it’s so important that media lawsuits now underway are successful in prying open the books.
The Paycheck Protection Program offers low-interest, forgivable loans to small businesses to keep their workers employed during the pandemic. The administration has previously said it would publicly disclose the recipient names and amounts. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week declined to divulge the identities of the borrowers to a Senate committee, calling that data proprietary and confidential.
So even after earlier scandals in which national chains like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House were allowed to get their hands on pandemic money meant for genuinely small businesses, this administration has the gall to announce it will be disbursing the money under a “just trust us” oversight process.
The administration’s claim to be above oversight in this crisis is nothing new. After President Donald Trump signed legislation providing historic levels of federal pandemic aid, he announced that he would not abide by a provision in that law allowing unfettered congressional review of how the money is spent. Congress could force the administration’s hand on this, but unfortunately, congressional Republicans have already indicated they aren’t going to do that — including those whose family businesses have benefited.
Hartzler, a Harrisonville Republican, acknowledged in April (in response to an inquiry from The Columbia Daily Tribune) that businesses owned by her and her husband have received some of the pandemic funds. Those funds came via a program that Hartzler herself voted to approve. She has so far refused to divulge any details about those funds, even the amount, which she can do because she and her fellow House Republicans successfully blocked a Democratic measure last month that would have required fuller disclosure.
None of this is illegal. That’s the problem.
Numerous news agencies are suing the administration for access to basic information about the pandemic money and its recipients. It’s crucial that the litigation is successful. Even for a competent and trustworthy administration, “just trust us” would be an unacceptable approach to oversight of this kind of money. And few if any administrations in U.S. history have done as little as this one to merit that kind of trust.
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