Transparency is Needed Before More COVID-19 Aid is Approved | Citizens Against Government Waste

Transparency is Needed Before More COVID-19 Aid is Approved

The WasteWatcher

After the federal government authorized approximately $4.6 trillion in aid money in the name of COVID-19 “relief,” President Joe Biden and some members of Congress believe that is not enough and have been calling for a new wave of money to be provided.  As Citizens Against Government Waste has noted, among many others, nearly $1 trillion is waiting to be spent and $360 billion has yet to be obligated for a specific purpose.  Before diving headlong into spending more taxpayer money, Congress should look at alternatives like repurposing unspent and unobligated money and conducting a full accounting of previous pandemic relief dollars.

The most recent push for new spending started when the White House submitted a request to Congress for up to $30 billion in COVID-19 relief that they suggested should be spent on testing, vaccines, and therapeutics.  Members of Congress objected to this last-minute request and lowered the total to around $22 billion and then $15 billion.  The omnibus bill that Congress passed last week originally included $15 billion in aid money which was offset by recouping money that was given to state and local governments.  This led to more objections from members of Congress, specifically rank and file Democrats, and the provision was stripped from the final bill.  The House of Representatives is hoping to vote on a standalone bill that would authorize $15 billion in pandemic aid sometime in the coming weeks.

 The federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented level of government spending.  The most recent $15 billion request pales in comparison to the monstrous and wasteful $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) (Pub. L. No. 117-2) and other relief bills.  This massive government spending has come without sufficient oversight on how the money was spent, and very little effort to stop it from being wasted in the first instance.  As House Budget Committee Ranking Member Jason Smith (R-Mo.) noted in the Washington Examiner, only 9 percent of pandemic relief money was directly related to the pandemic.  He described wasteful spending that includes $2 billion spent on projects like golf courses, luxury apartments, and upgrading state parks and trails. The Treasury Department has created websites to track this spending, but as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported, and other websites are difficult to use and have outdated information. 

It is also hard to get a clear picture of how much pandemic relief money has been stolen.  The Secret Service estimates that criminals have stolen as much as $100 billion and only $2 billion has been recovered.   Others have estimated that as much as $400 billion, or half of the $800 billion in unemployment claims, has been stolen.  The problem of fraudulent pandemic relief claims is so widespread that even President Biden recognized the problem and suggested in his State of the Union address that the Department of Justice should appoint a prosecutor to specifically target criminals and recover the taxpayers’ money.

After years of unprecedented levels of government spending, taxpayers need a full accounting of previous pandemic relief spending.  Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) led 35 of his Senate Republican colleagues in a March 2, 2022, letter to the White House calling for a complete accounting of pandemic relief money, including how much had been used for vaccines and testing, before they would consider more COVID-19 aid requests from the White House.  This is a critical step in the right direction that would help the government get its fiscal house in order and bring sanity back to the government spending and budget processes. 

Although the most recent call for additional pandemic relief is targeted to areas that are more closely tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is not yet any assurance that the funds are either necessary or unavailable from prior relief bills. It is critical that Congress and the rest of the federal government increase transparency for taxpayers and assist with recovering the billions of dollars stolen by criminals.  If members of Congress approve any more pandemic-related funding, they should only use some of the hundreds of billions of dollars that remain unobligated and unspent.