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As $2 trillion in coronavirus aid starts to flow, oversight still lags

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional oversight of about $2 trillion for the coronavirus crisis began to take shape Friday as two more members were added to a special panel, bringing to three the total number of people tasked with monitoring how the money is spent.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and Arkansas Rep. French Hill were added to the five-member Congressional Oversight Commission by GOP leaders. They join Bharat Ramamurti, a Democratic Senate aide who until Friday has been the panel’s sole appointee.

That still leaves the commission with two vacancies, even as the Trump administration and Congress begin to pump unprecedented sums into the economy.

It’s a halting start for the oversight structure built into the coronavirus relief law, which Democrats demanded in return for empowering a president and administration they deeply distrust. The law establishes three different watchdogs, with a fourth being created by House Democrats as part of an effort to prevent fraud and abuse as money starts flowing under the sweeping economic rescue law.

Sheltering at home with preschoolers, Ramamurti has been writing letters and taking to Twitter to try and jump-start his work, asking President Donald Trump’s administration for “detailed and timely information” about coronavirus payments. But he’s eager for reinforcements.

“I’d love to have other members of the committee appointed so we can all do this together,” he said earlier this week. A former aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Ramamurti was appointed April 6 by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California on Friday added Hill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell named Toomey a few hours later.

McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will jointly appoint the panel’s chairperson. Pelosi said Thursday that the two were trading suggestions for who should take that lead position and expect an announcement soon..

McConnell said Friday he is naming Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, to coordinate the Senate’s oversight of the law.

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McConnell said “appropriate, objective and nonpartisan oversight will be key to ensuring its dollars and programs find their mark.”

McConnell called Crapo a natural for the oversight role, noting that the Banking Committee already has jurisdiction over the largest parts of the legislation, including economic stabilization and the Federal Reserve. Crapo will also work closely with the chairs of other Senate committees and “will help quarterback all our oversight Senate-wide,” McConnell said.

A slow roll-out is typical for Washington, said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, “but this is not a normal circumstance,” with the administration intent on disbursing funds at a rapid clip.

“If oversight is not happening, that’s a problem, because the actual assistance is happening,’’ Bookbinder said.

Looming deadlines for the Trump administration to deliver information to Congress will test the oversight system in the coming weeks. The disclosure duties mostly fall to the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, but Trump has set a tone of disdain toward the process.

The president has suggested the oversight provisions were unnecessary, saying even as he signed the law that the administration didn’t have to comply with some of them. He then ousted the official named chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a board of inspectors general established to monitor the unprecedented spending.

Pelosi has moved on her own to form a special oversight panel led by Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. Unlike other entities, Clyburn’s panel will have subpoena power.

Still, no members of the committee have been appointed since Clyburn was named to the post in early April, and it is not clear if Republicans will participate.

Similarly, Trump has nominated one of his White House lawyers, former inspector general Brian Miller, to a new Treasury inspector general position created to track coronavirus relief for industry. But the Senate isn’t around to confirm him.

Pelosi told reporters Thursday she expects to announce her appointee to the congressional commission soon, adding that the House will vote on the Clyburn committee when they return.

“With all the money going out, we really need to do it in a timely fashion,” she said.

The delays have watchdog groups concerned.

“This is an unprecedented level of relief and it needs an unprecedented level of oversight,” said Sean Moulton of the Project on Government Oversight.

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