CARES Act Oversight: How It Works And Why It Is Necessary
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When the CARES Act passed more than a month ago, we ran out of adjectives to describe it. Enormous didn't quite cover it. The relief package came in at over $2 trillion. Speedy felt like an undersell. The package passed in record time. And sweeping just sounded like a cliche, even if the legislation did help millions of people. But those three factors - the enormity, the speed and scope of the bill - are why Congress created an oversight panel to keep track of where the money is going.
Bharat Ramamurti is one of five members to serve on the Congressional Oversight Committee. He's also managing director of the Corporate Power program at the Roosevelt Institute and a former economic adviser to Elizabeth Warren.
BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Thank you.
CHANG: So what is it specifically that you are overseeing? - because it's not everything in the CARES Act, right?
RAMAMURTI: That's right. So part of the CARES Act was a $500 billion fund that Congress gave to the Treasury Department. And the idea was that the Treasury Department would use that in conjunction with the Federal Reserve to lend to big and medium-sized businesses throughout the economy. So that is the pot of money in the CARES Act that the oversight commission that I'm on is responsible for overseeing.
CHANG: What kind of power does your group have to get the documents and information that you need? - because, I mean, you do not have subpoena power, if I'm not mistaken. So how do you force people to disclose things that they may not want to disclose?
RAMAMURTI: One thing we do have is the power to hold hearings, so we can call the Treasury secretary, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, other senior officials to come testify before us. And we can also request documents from federal agencies - the Treasury and the Federal Reserve - and from private companies.
CHANG: But those requests - just to be clear - can be refused.
RAMAMURTI: They can. The other thing is that while we do not have subpoena power, as you noted, we can work with other committees in Congress in both the House and the Senate that do have subpoena power.
CHANG: So as the person who was the first to join this oversight group and therefore the person who has spent the most time on it, what's your biggest concern so far with how the CARES Act money is getting doled out right now?
RAMAMURTI: The way that this program operates is by providing taxpayer-subsidized loans. My concern is that at the moment, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have not put conditions on that money that would guarantee that companies have to use it to support their workforce.
CHANG: To retain them.
RAMAMURTI: Right. What we've seen is that more often than not, those corporate boards and CEOs are going to make - look out for their shareholders and their executives first and their workers last. So my concern is that taxpayers are going to be ensuring that big-time investors and executives don't take any losses in the short term but that workers at these companies are not going to be able to stay on payroll, stay connected to their health insurance and be able to provide for their families.
CHANG: Now, your group is supposed to be made up of five people. Four have been named already, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are supposed to work together to name that fifth member, the chair of this group. What can't you do right now because you don't have a chair?
RAMAMURTI: Well, the law says that there are a couple of discrete things that we need a chair to do. One of them appears to be getting a budget and hiring staff. So at the moment, we haven't been able to take those steps. The things that we can do quite clearly are hold hearings and issue these reports. So one of the main functions of the commission is that every 30 days, we are supposed to issue a public report that explains to people, this is the impact of the program so far on, quote, "the financial well-being of American families." And there's nothing stopping us from issuing that report even if we don't have a chair.
CHANG: So looking ahead, what do you see as the biggest challenge when it comes to overseeing this massive, simply unprecedented relief package?
RAMAMURTI: I think it's the sheer volume of the money that's going to be going out the door and trying to keep track of all of it and the decisions that corporations are going to make after they get the support. The Treasury and the Fed have an opportunity to push this program in one direction or the other. And I think the key role of the oversight commission is going to be scrutinizing the decisions that the Fed and the Treasury are making, trying to understand why they're making the decisions they do and then explaining to people as clearly as possible, here's what happened to hundreds of billions and trillions of your dollars, and here's what we think the effect was, ultimately, on you and your family.
CHANG: Bharat Ramamurti serves on Congress's oversight panel of the CARES Act.
Thank you very much for speaking with us today.
RAMAMURTI: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.