Finance

How the government will track $500B in bailout funds

The White House and Congress are coming together on a plan to apply some degree of public scrutiny to business loans being teed up by the latest coronavirus economic stimulus bill.

Treasury Department

Lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled tougher oversight plans for the massive business bailout program at the heart of the latest coronavirus stimulus bill, after Democrats attacked the measure as an unchecked slush fund.

According to new details of the economic stimulus legislation, the planned $500 billion Treasury Department fund would be subject to scrutiny via public reporting of transactions, as well as a new dedicated watchdog and accountability committee.

The transparency provisions that lawmakers agreed to echo steps taken to police the bank bailouts in 2008 under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

"We thought that rather than the extremely expansive version our Democratic colleagues were pushing for, we ought to follow the model of the TARP approach, where we would focus on specific transactions," Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) said Wednesday.

The effectiveness of the measures will hinge on how the new oversight entities are structured, what powers they have and — perhaps most importantly — who's selected to run them, according to watchdogs and veterans of the bank bailout oversight programs.

"You can create an inspector general, but you have to make sure he or she has the necessary authority," said Neil Barofsky, who served as the special inspector general overseeing TARP. "You have to pick the right person. It's kind of a meaningless position if you don't have someone who's going to fight for independence and to bring the necessary transparency and have the experience to protect against fraud in a program of this size and scope."

The bill would create a Treasury Department special inspector general to scrutinize the Treasury loans and establish an oversight panel tasked with protecting taxpayer dollars. It would also create "real-time public reporting" of Treasury transactions, according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, including terms of loans, investments or other assistance to corporations.

In addition, the bill would prohibit the Treasury loans or investments from going to any business controlled by the president, vice president, members of Congress and the heads of executive departments.

The proposed Treasury funds include $46 billion for passenger airlines and other industries and $454 billion to support Federal Reserve lending programs to businesses, states and municipalities.

The bipartisan congressional oversight commission that the bill would establish to examine decisions by Treasury and the Fed would consist of five members appointed by the GOP and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, according to legislative text circulated Wednesday.

"This is above board," White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Fox Business on Tuesday. "Everyone will get a chance to see it. Nothing's going to be hidden."

TARP was also subject to a special inspector general and an oversight board. Before she was elected to the Senate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) became a progressive icon in part because of her role leading TARP's Congressional Oversight Panel, where she grilled figures such as then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner about the bank bailouts.

Warren has been a fierce critic of the business rescue plan in the latest coronavirus bill as well.

“We're not here to create a slush fund for Donald Trump and his family, or a slush fund for the Treasury Department to be able to hand out to their friends," she said before the latest version of the bill was announced. "We're here to help workers, we're here to help hospitals."

That skepticism is likely to persist, even with the proposed checks on the bailout fund.

"Specific statutory provisions are irrelevant -- the House Ways and Means Chairman utilized a specific statutory provision to request Trump's tax returns from [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin and nearly a year later, he has not received them," said Jeff Hauser, who scrutinizes administration personnel as executive director of the Revolving Door Project.

Isaac Boltansky, who served as a research analyst for the TARP oversight panel, said questions at this stage include whether investigators will have the ability to compel documents, whether there will be sufficient funding for staff and resources and whether there will be a way to review and potentially alter programs before they launch.

"Well-tailored oversight not only protects the taxpayer, but it can be additive to the overall effort if structured properly," he said. "There is no monopoly on good ideas, especially when considering the scale and scope of the forthcoming endeavor."