Thursday, October 01, 2020

Trump takes immediate step to try to curb new inspector general's autonomy, as battle over coronavirus oversight begins

Mar 28. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Jeff Stein · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, POLITICS

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Friday took a step to immediately try to curb oversight provisions in Congress' $2 trillion coronavirus spending package, seeking to assert presidential authority over a new inspector general's office.

The move could presage a major battle between the White House and Capitol Hill as the Trump administration moves to implement the new law.

In a White House signing statement released Friday evening, Trump called "unreasonable" the law's mandate that a new Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery notify Congress immediately if the White House doesn't cooperate with an audit or investigation. The new inspector general is supposed to monitor how the Treasury Department extends loans and loan guarantees to businesses, among other things.

Under the legislation, the new inspector general office is required to tell Congress "without delay" whenever administration officials are unreasonably withholding crucial information from investigators. But the White House signing statement said the administration will not allow the inspector general to tell Congress without "presidential supervision," calling it 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," the White House statement said.

The new inspector general is supposed to be nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate.

The $2 trillion spending law gives the Treasury Department broad discretion in how it sets up new lending programs. Trump has signaled he wants certain industries, such as hotels and cruise ships, to have access to the taxpayer-backed funding. The Treasury Department hasn't said so far how it will decide who receives money and what the terms will be. Trump said on Friday night that his aides would be consulting with top Wall Street executives to make some of the decisions.

The administration agreed to create the new inspector general's office in response to Democratic lawmakers who balked at giving Treasury Department wide latitude to disburse more than $400 billion in emergency loans to corporations, cities, and states. Senate Democrats voted down the initial Senate Republican bill because of the lack of oversight measures over this pot of funding, only agreeing to approve the broader package after the inspector general's office was added to the legislation.

On MSNBC Friday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized Trump's signing statement as "indicative of the difference between Democrats and Republicans when it came to this bill." Congress will also soon establish its own panel, as allowed under law, "in real time to make sure we know where those funds are," Pelosi said.

Earlier in the week, when asked about oversight of the lending programs, Trump told reporters that "I'll be the oversight."

It's unclear what steps Congress could do if Trump seeks to weaken the new inspector general. they could attempt to file a lawsuit, but doing so would likely take months and potentially never reach a resolution, according to Steve Rosenthal, a legal expert at the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan think-tank.

Given the scale of the money involved, Congress is likely to push back against Trump's demands for presidential oversight over the new inspector general's office.

"Whenever the government is trying to spend this much money, we should have good transparency and good accountability to the extent that we can," said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a non-partisan think tank.

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