Government Accountability Office Oversees CARES Act

Apr 24, 2020
Originally published on April 24, 2020 5:03 pm
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The CARES Act is the $2 trillion coronavirus response legislation that Congress approved late last month. It calls for a government watchdog - the Government Accountability Office, or GAO - to monitor the spending and the overall federal response to the pandemic. And while President Trump has pushed back on other oversight, it'll be difficult for him to block the GAO's work. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The GAO is a nonpartisan agency that's part of Congress. A video on its website explains its purpose pretty succinctly.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We track government funds to see how much programs are costing, if the programs have met their goals and whether federal money has been spent wisely.

NICOLE CLOWERS: We've been given a very broad oversight role under the CARES Act.

NAYLOR: That's Nicole Clowers. She's the managing director of the GAO's health care team.

CLOWERS: We're required to provide ongoing monitoring and oversight of the nation's preparedness for, response to and recovery from the pandemic as well as examining the impact of the pandemic on the economy, public health as well as Homeland Security.

NAYLOR: Clowers says the GAO was also tracking how that $2 trillion is being spent, and she says the agency has already gotten to work.

CLOWERS: Some of the more immediate things that we're starting would include looking at the testing for the virus, the availability of the personal protective equipment as well as infection control at nursing homes.

NAYLOR: It's a broad mandate, but Clowers says the agency has experience. It oversaw spending on the TARP Act and the economic stimulus bill in 2008, relief measures Congress approved in the Great Recession. The CARES Act contained $20 million for the GAO to hire additional staff. Rena Steinzor is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. She says the GAO is up to the task.

RENA STEINZOR: They're used to doing complicated audits, and they're used to writing reports that are objective. Now, the downside of all of that is they are the group that dares to be boring. But arguably, you need that.

NAYLOR: Congress initially tried to find other avenues for oversight of the CARES Act by establishing a panel of inspectors general to oversee the money and a special IG to watch over the money distributed to corporations. But President Trump removed the officials said to lead that panel. Steinzor, though, says the GAO is beyond the president's reach.

STEINZOR: He can't fire them. He can stonewall them. This administration is historical in terms of the amount of stonewalling that it just does. But they will find a way to talk to people, and they will just keep their head down and keep on walking toward the goal.

NAYLOR: Clowers says the GAO has long worked with Republicans and Democrats, and she's confident the agency will be able to do so as it looks into the government response to the pandemic.

CLOWERS: We have longstanding relationships - independent but longstanding relationships with agencies, and I believe that that will help us maintain good relations - you know, good working relationships moving forward.

NAYLOR: The GAO is to report its findings every 60 days. Its first report is due at the end of June.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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