Oversight of $500 Billion in Coronavirus Aid is at Risk as Pelosi and McConnell Fight Over A Leader

Members of a bipartisan congressional panel who oversee $500 billion in coronavirus funds for struggling businesses are warning that proper oversight is at risk because the commission tasked with the job still lacks a leader.

As a result, members are taking the unusual step of requesting the resources they need to proceed anyway in a quiet attempt to force the issue as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continue to duke it out over a chairman.

The delay from some of Washington's top leaders to strike an agreement over who should lead the Congressional Oversight Commission to watch over the pandemic aid is irritating the small, bipartisan group. Absent a leader, dedicated staff and resources remain limited, they said, which could delay and even hamstring members' efforts.

"We would have more robust oversight and be further along in our analysis if we had a chairman and staff in place," Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), a member of the panel, told Newsweek. "Short of that, we will not be operating at our best or we won't be up to full efficiency."

The commission will send a formal request to congressional leadership this week requesting that if Pelosi and McConnell can't put aside their political rivalry, they need to provide interim staff and resources so they can rigorously conduct their work, according to a senior congressional aide associated with the commission. Members have already sent informal requests to leadership, including Hill.

"It kinda puts them in a bind. They're the ones that are gonna start looking bad," the aide said, referring to the California Democrat and Kentucky Republican. The aide requested anonymity to discuss internal commission matters. "It's been eight weeks, why the f--- don't we have a chair yet?"

congressional oversight coronavirus relief at risk
The left picture features Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as he puts on a mask during a press conference after a meeting with Republican Senators in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, May 19 in Washington, DC. The right picture shows Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arriving for a ceremonial swearing-in event for new Republican House Representatives at the U.S. Capitol on May 19 in Washington, DC. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty

The panel is composed of five members, with the top two leaders in each chamber choosing a nominee. Democrats chose Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) and lawyer Bharat Ramamurti, a former Senate aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Republicans selected Hill and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Their task is to oversee the $500 billion pot of money created under the $2.2 trillion Cares Act that the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department are lending to industries under financial duress from the pandemic, such as airlines and companies of all sizes.

Pelosi and McConnell have yet to appoint a leader nearly two months after the passage of the CARES Act, a representation of the partisan gridlock that often clamps down on Washington's ability to act swiftly. Shelia Bair, who has GOP roots but is an ally of Warren, was floated for the position but never chosen.

Prompted by Newsweek at a press conference on Wednesday, Pelosi said that she and McConnell are still "exchanging names" and remained "optimistic and hopeful that we should be able to find someone that meets the test who's not, shall we say, on the board of one thing or another." She did not offer a timeline for a decision.

Pelosi also denied the notion that members expressed concern that the lack of leadership could hinder their work, citing the commission's first report that was released earlier this week.

"Some members are saying that? That's not the impression I have from them," she said. "I get a very confident impression from them, that they have done their first report."

McConnell's office did not respond to Newsweek's inquiry.

The commission members have been eking out a path to do their jobs, and with the help of a skeleton staff composed of personnel from their private offices, the four members published their first report on Monday. The 16-page document is intended to act as a roadmap for how the commission will approach its oversight, and it included more than five dozen questions about aspects of the massive fund and its implementation.

"It will be more straight forward, effective, efficient, expeditious, if we have that staff," Hill said. "I think it's an appropriate thing to request, if the decision of a chair could be delayed further. For us to do our job most effectively, we need a chairman and staff resources dedicated to the effort."

What members have learned so far is that only a fraction—$37.5 billion—of the $500 billion has been distributed. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testified to senators on Tuesday that the agency is prepared to lend the rest and that it is "fully prepared to take losses in certain scenarios."

As the rest of the money is disbursed, the demand for oversight will become exacerbated and amplify the commission's need for a leader, Hill said. The oversight could also help influence the partisan debate raging in Congress over whether another stimulus package will be needed, Hill noted. The panel will publish its second report next month.

"We want to see how the Federal Reserve and Treasury use this money to best effect the American economy and people," Hill said. "It's not too early to analyze the gaps and what might be needed."