By Catherine Rampell June 15, 2020 at 3:38 p.m. PDT
What are they hiding?
That’s the question taxpayers should be asking as the Trump administration refuses to reveal where a half-trillion dollars of our hard-earned cash has gone.
In March, back when Congress was rushing to provide more coronavirus relief, lawmakers passed an unprecedented $2 trillion bill known as the Cares Act. After initially fighting to prevent any meaningful oversight of the bailout programs it would administer — at one point even demanding a few-strings-attached Treasury slush fund — the Trump administration eventually agreed to several major oversight and disclosure measures. Senior officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, repeatedly pledged “full transparency on anything we do.”
Since then, the administration has worked to sabotage virtually all of these accountability mechanisms. While paying lip service to “transparency,” it has fired, demoted or otherwise kneecapped inspectors general, some of whom recently wrote to congressional leaders warning of systematic efforts to avoid scrutiny required by law. The watchdog Government Accountability Office also complained that the administration has refused to provide critical data on the bailout.
Last week, the administration backtracked on its commitment to publicly disclose the beneficiaries of its $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — including, presumably, information about whether any of the “small businesses” helped happen to be President Trump’s.
This is unacceptable.
Oversight and transparency should be demanded of any major executive-branch spending program. That’s especially true of this executive branch and this spending program, which are both unusually ripe for cronyism and abuse.
The president has, after all, frequently funneled other public funds into his own pockets, such as through outsized Secret Service golf cart rentals and overpriced staffer stays at Trump hotel properties. Scandal after scandal relating to aides’ misuse of taxpayer dollars has eroded any right the administration might claim to deserving the benefit of the doubt.
Trump has also publicly refused to commit to not receiving any coronavirus-related bailout aid.
“Let’s just see what happens,” he said in a White House briefing in March. He also told reporters: “I have hotels. Everybody knew I had hotels when I got elected. They knew I was a successful person when I got elected, so it’s one of those things.”
Trump has since said that he hasn’t requested government assistance. But in at least one case, he in fact has: He asked the federal government, his landlord, for a break on his rent at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Have his businesses applied for help through PPP? Right now taxpayers have no way of knowing. The Cares Act specifically prevented Treasury and Federal Reserve funds reserved for “big business” from benefiting Trump, senior Cabinet members, lawmakers or their families; but it placed no such restrictions on the “small business” relief program.
PPP was necessary to preserve American businesses and jobs. Any program of its unprecedented size and speed, however, requires abundant disclosure and vigilant oversight, even if Trump isn’t using it as a personal piggy bank.
The speed with which funds were distributed should generally be considered a good thing — but only if dollars reached their intended recipients. And press reports or public company filings have already revealed that some didn’t.
Eligible small businesses have been turned away, well-connected firms got preferential treatment, and some big, public corporations were strong-armed into giving loans back.
Other arguments in favor of disclosure include both agency precedent and law.
The Small Business Administration has published detailed data on recipients of its 7(a) loan program since 1991. PPP was explicitly built upon that program. And the fact that the PPP loans, unlike the traditional 7(a) ones, are broadly forgivable argues for subjecting them to even higher levels of scrutiny.
Despite his alleged commitment to transparency, Mnuchin told lawmakers last week that information on loan recipients and amounts would not be released because it is “proprietary” and “confidential.” Never mind that the PPP loan application form explicitly says borrower information may be “subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.” It adds that “information about approved loans that will be automatically released” (emphasis mine) includes borrower names, collateral pledged and the loan amount.
In other words, exactly the kinds of details that media organizations and congressionally appointed government watchdogs are requesting and that the administration refuses to release.
On Monday, Mnuchin tweeted that he would have “discussions” with lawmakers about releasing more information. Maybe he means it this time, but this feels a bit like Lucy and the football.
Which is why further rounds of stimulus must explicitly mandate disclosure of who benefits from these bailouts and how much. The American people deserve to know who’s getting our money, Trump or otherwise.
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