Congress Struggles to Find Leader for Bailout Watchdog Panel

A watchdog panel overseeing a half-trillion dollars in pandemic relief spending is struggling to get fully staffed and running almost four months after it was created, as the two top leaders in Congress have so far failed to name a chairman.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell jointly considered Joseph Dunford, a retired Marine general, as head of the Congressional Oversight Commission, and had vetted him last month. But he’s now withdrawn from consideration, according to people familiar with the matter.

Dunford served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until 2019 and joined the board of defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. in January. Dunford decided that heading the commission would be incompatible with his other commitments, according to one person familiar with the situation, who like the others spoke on condition on anonymity.

It’s unclear whether there are any other contenders being discussed to lead the five-member panel overseeing industry bailouts.

Congressional Democrats urged President Donald Trump’s administration and Republican lawmakers to create several oversight panels to monitor how the unprecedented $3 trillion in virus relief was being spent. Those efforts have been slow to get up and running. Brian Miller, who heads the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, or SIGPR, is still hiring staff and has not fully begun oversight work.

Errors in recently released data from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program have illustrated the complexities and importance of oversight work. A Bloomberg News analysis revealed that the data for PPP loans totaling more than $521 billion released on July 6 are riddled with anomalies. Almost 1,000 entries show 500 jobs were saved by loans under $150,000, which is mathematically doubtful given that the aid is based on 2.5 times a firm’s average monthly payroll.

The congressional oversight panel has four current members, named in April, who have already issued two reports. They were appointed by Pelosi, McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy. They are: Democratic Representative Donna Shalala of Florida; GOP Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania; Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and GOP Representative French Hill of Arkansas.

In a report issued earlier last month the watchdog panel said pandemic relief efforts by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve bolstered the corporate bond market, but might be falling short in helping small business and state and local governments get access to loans. The panel is required to issue public reports monthly, with the third one expected next week.

The commission was created at the insistence of congressional Democrats during negotiations with Trump advisers and Republicans in Congress that resulted in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus legislation known as the Cares Act.

The panel has a term of five years, and it’s modeled after a similar temporary oversight commission that reviewed the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.

The oversight commission is one of several bodies created to monitor the flood of spending intended to help struggling airlines, corporations, main street businesses and hospitals amid the pandemic’s shutdown of the economy.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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