During Sunshine Week, Lankford Shines Light on “COVID Relief” Spending
CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s Q&A on YouTube.
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WASHINGTON, DC – During this Sunshine Week, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today pushed for sunlight on trillions in federal funds spent in the name of “COVID relief” in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, entitled, “Pandemic Response and Accountability: Reducing Fraud and Expanding Access to COVID-19 Relief through Effective Oversight.”
Lankford continues to call for oversight of federal spending, including “COVID relief,” especially unused funds as Democrats continue to ask for more and more federal tax dollars. Lankford has said he will not support any additional “COVID relief” funding without an accounting of existing money sent to states. Lankford’s questions today focused on how to track specific COVID-related spending and how to ensure accountability for unspent or misspent dollars.
Witnesses at today’s hearing were, Jason Miller, Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget; Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States at the Government Accountability Office; Michael E. Horowitz, the Chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and Inspector General at the Department of Justice; and Larry Turner, the Inspector General of the Department of Labor.
Lankford: Thank you. Thank you to the witnesses—thanks for being here. Mr. Miller, I want to follow up as well, Senator Scott had mentioned before that there have been some questions just on spending and where things have—what has happened already with the spending that’s occurred and what’s left of different accounts. You had mentioned before you didn’t feel like some of the new spending for COVID needs an offset. We’re still trying to get answers to questions of what has been spent and what category. So, some pretty basic things. Obviously, COVID vaccine acquisition, the distribution of the COVID vaccine, research and development for COVID vaccines, test production, test acquisition, therapeutics production, acquisition, PPE purchased. I mean those are pretty standard questions to be able to go through on it to be able to get total dollars and be able to see what’s been spent from each account and then what is unspent on it. How can we best get those totals?
Miller: Sure, so first, overall, over 90 percent of funds have been obligated across pandemic relief efforts. Usaspending.gov as well as thepandemicoversight.gov captures spending by recipient by state. In addition to that, at the request of Congress, OMB’s been providing ARP balances, ARP obligations to budget committees of both parties. Some specifics, you know, $30.4 billion spent on COVID-19 vaccines, $13.5 billion spent in vaccine support, like distribution, tracking, and promoting vaccines. I’m happy to provide that information. Senator Romney also sent a letter to the White House, as you may be aware, along similar lines.
Lankford: Right. So we’re trying to figure out, can we also get what has been spent versus what has been obligated?
Miller: Yeah, and we sent a response to him with regards to the specifics going through some of the key categories. Those online, our usaspending.gov has obligations as well as outlays in terms of what’s been spent. I would note, one of the things that is an important distinction, in some of the funds that have been unobligated, they may have been allocated. For example, the biggest bucket with an ARP is the state and local relief fund at the Treasury Department. And because it was the traunched, a lot of states and counties know the amount of money they’re expected to get, and those traunches and the dates are defined in the statute, that means in most cases, they have actually budgeted for those resources, even though they have not yet been obligated.
Lankford: Do we have a listing of what has been reprogrammed?
Miller: Do we have a listing of what has been reprogrammed, I’d be happy to follow up with you on the specifics of the question around—
Lankford: That would be helpful—I mean there’s multiple different categories we hear that money’s been reprogrammed into other areas. For instance, HHS moved money over to ORR, Office of Refugee Resettlement, dealing with the unaccompanied minors. We’re trying to get details of what has been reprogrammed, where were those reprogrammed. DHS has been particularly difficult to be able to get reprogram dollar amounts and what has been moved from HHS down to the border. We understand quite a bit was moved to the border, obviously there are pandemic issues related there as well, and they’re still ongoing. But we’re trying to be able to figure out what is exactly reprogrammed and sent down there. Can we get a listing on that?
Miller: I’m happy to follow up with you on that.
Lankford: That’d be helpful. Gene Dodaro—good to see you again. Thanks for your extended work for so many years in so many things. There are lessons to learn from this as we go through—one of them deals with the topic you and I had talked about for years, which is the Taxpayer’s-Right-to-Know that OMB has been very engaged in trying to be able to apply. OMB has been engaged in trying to be able to determine categories, to be able to list out for Taxpayer’s-Right-to-Know. That’s an ongoing work behind the scenes for them that I think they’re doing a really good job on and trying to get done. There’s a lot of challenges in that—are there lessons we can learn from trying to categorize things through COVID relief to be able to develop buckets of money in categories that could be transitioned into lessons learned for long term for taxpayer’s right to know application?
Dodaro: Yes, I think there are definitely, there are always lessons to be learned out of these activities. And I think the main thing though that I’m concerned about that I’ve been trying to deal with is getting more timely information regardless of the categories. This could help on the categorization particularly for emergency spending and they could adjust the codes that they use to code with Treasury on that and the money. But part of the problem is that to get the information you’re requesting, to get it up-to-date, you have to get it from each individual agency. It’s not on usaspending.gov, and it’s delayed, so you really don’t have that information available. So, to me, the timeliness of this—now, in the recovery act, when that was passed, the lesson learned out of that is you had direct recipient reporting through the website. You didn’t have to go through the agencies, that was not used as an important part of this. And we’re still going to have trouble finding out what the states did with the two funds that they had because they’re going to distribute it to some recipients.
There’s no auditing done of some recipient data. And one of the recommendations I’m making in today’s testimony is to have the IGs. Their requirement for auditing the data on usaspending.gov has expired, and unless Congress reinstates that requirement, very few IGs will audit the data. So the quality and completeness of the data is still at risk. Of 57 or 56 entities that IGs looked at, 44 IGs found problems with completeness, accuracy of that information and so that needs to be a requirement. And nobody is auditing the sub-recipient data, so I’m going to take a look at what we can do at GAO working with the IG community or whatever. So the basic lesson learned out of all of this is better categorizations as you suggest, and I think we learned some things on that particularly, not only coding the spending data but the procurement data systems, we’ve had some recommendations on that. But the main thing is the quality, the completeness, and timeliness, are still major issues for all federal spending.
Lankford: Because we can get a big category and say x-amount-of-dollars have been allocated, but trying to be able to get what it was spent for, where it went, how it went, was it actually used for that purpose at the end of it, we’re not able to see it at this point.