An unprecedented effort by the federal government to shield Americans from the worst economic blows of the global pandemic was hailed as a bipartisan triumph when it passed Congress nearly unanimously. That’s why it’s all the more disappointing that one of the few safeguards built into the $2.2 trillion rescue bill — oversight of a $500 billion fund meant to help industries and businesses — is being rejected by President Donald Trump.
It’s regrettable, but not surprising. Trump operates the presidency with a strong authoritarian streak. His administration shows little concern for transparency. That is at odds with a system of government based on checks and balances.
Congress has the constitutional power of the purse, and it should not be expected to surrender enormous amounts of money to the executive branch with little accountability.
In passing the massive recovery bill, the House put in a rather modest oversight capability. It established that a special inspector general would review decisions made by the Treasury Department as to who gets business relief and how much. That inspector general would also be able to investigate those decisions if warranted.
That measure was key to winning over some Democrats who wanted greater transparency in a package that had necessarily been assembled in haste. The provision required the inspector general to notify Congress if the administration failed to provide information needed for an inquiry.
The reasons for such a provision in this administration above all others are legion. Trump’s Cabinet members have made a practice of ignoring congressional requests for information. That makes this measure of accountability, for what could otherwise easily turn into a half-billion-dollar slush fund that rewards those friendly to the administration and punishes others, of paramount importance.
But in the signing statement that sometimes accompanies presidential approvals of legislation, Trump noted that he would not recognize Congress’ authority to create such oversight. That’s alarming in part because a responsible executive should not shy away from the need to provide reasons for decisions. It is of note that the bill allowed the president to nominate his choice for inspector general, which would then have been confirmed by the Republican-led Senate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that Trump’s objections notwithstanding, “Congress will exercise its oversight. And we will have our panel appointed by the House to, in real time, make sure we know where those funds are going to be expended.” That is entirely appropriate, but it shouldn’t come to that.
Passage of the recovery bill was a rare and welcome act of strong bipartisanship in a deeply polarized Congress. That ability to come together will be needed even more in the months to come. We are not yet at the peak for the pandemic in this country, and already it is clear that the $2.2 trillion bill will fall short. It is critical that the president not squander that fragile coalition by foolishly insisting that he is above scrutiny.
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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