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Why We Still Don’t Know Which Businesses Are Getting Coronavirus Relief

8 minute read

When the government’s wildly popular program to cover small businesses’ overhead costs during the coronavirus pandemic came back online on Monday, thousands of Main Street businesses were lined up for the 10:30 a.m. starting pistol.

By 1 p.m. on Tuesday, banks had shoveled $52 billion dollars in federally backed small business loans out the door. By the close of business on Wednesday, more than $90 billion had been doled out. Struggling companies’ intense need for capital has had bankers across the country working around the clock to process loan applicants’ paperwork — and fighting government servers that keep crashing under the demand.

The small-business program, branded the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), is one of the biggest cash injections to the U.S. economy in history. The program’s first $349 billion in funding ran out in 14 days, and the second tranche of $310 billion, approved last week, is on track to do the same. The money is being loaned out by 5,300 separate banks without much direction from Washington other than to get the cash moving.

And yet as of today, the taxpayers footing the historic tab have no way of knowing who is getting the cash. Though some large firms that were recipients have been identified by their Securities and Exchange Commission filings — and shamed or bullied into giving back their loan money — the government body overseeing the enormous fund has yet to release any comprehensive list of beneficiaries. Though now-dated information is available on what sectors and states were the program’s biggest winners during the first funding round, it may be months before any complete public accounting takes place for who got what cash and to what end.

“We are missing a critical moment. All this money is going out the door,” says Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “It’s a really live question what oversight is being done at this moment.”

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The Paycheck Protection Program offers eligible businesses with fewer than 500 employees, non-profits and self-employed individuals loans from private lenders that will be forgiven if the firms keep their payrolls steady. In other words, companies can carry unneeded workers for free, a measure aimed at stopping the spiraling unemployment numbers of 26 million and counting.

The loans that went out under the program’s first pot of money came under fire for excluding smaller banks and minority communities. When Congress restocked the fund last week, those concerns yielded carve-outs to help smaller banks participate and offset potential favoritism of banks toward bigger, better-resourced customers. On Wednesday, the program also announced that only banks with assets of less than $1 billion could submit after-hours paperwork between 4 p.m. and midnight, giving smaller banks another advantage and the computer servers a break.

But without any real-time visibility into who is getting the funding, it is impossible to know whether the second tranche of money is avoiding the pitfalls of the first. Immediate disclosures of how the money is being spent was not part of either deal Congress struck for the first or second round of spending. The government, after all, had plenty on its plate and there were legitimate worries that rapid disclosure could put thumbs on the scale of competition. Some borrowers have been identified through SEC filings, but the mom-and-pop shops that were envisioned to be the core beneficiaries of the program aren’t regulated there.

“We know they have to make it public at some point. But they have not made it easy so far,” says Jordan Libowitz, the communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a progressive watchdog group.

For now, the most recent public accounting of the program, posted on the Treasury Department’s website, tracks money through April 16. It breaks down the dispersed loans by state and sector, but it does not identify loan recipients, and it only identifies the biggest lenders under the program by a number. (For instance, an unnamed Lender One had an average loan amount of $515,000.) The Small Business Administration (SBA), the federal agency that’s on the hook for reimbursing the banks, offers a little more information about the size of the banks that are lending from the latest funds, but not who’s getting it.

Ultimately, the best source of solid information about the spending is likely to be the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a panel established in the broader law that set up the Paycheck Protection Program. After President Donald Trump sidelined the panel’s first leader in a bureaucratic swing, it has an interim chairman, the top watchdog at the Justice Department, and this week hired a top staffer to get work started. Anyone receiving help under any part the relief packages has to report back quarterly to the pandemic panel details about the money and what it’s being used for. The panel in turn will have 30 days to post that online for public review. But the quarter doesn’t end until June 30. The soonest disclosures could happen might be late July or early August for some of the first businesses to access the small business aid.

Congress also created the Office of the Special Inspector General at the Department of Treasury, a new watchdog dedicated to tracking where the pandemic dollars are going. The post, however, requires a Senate confirmation. Trump has selected White House lawyer Brian D. Miller, a former federal prosecutor and previous inspector general. But he faces a tough crowd in the Senate; last year, Miller told the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the White House was done cooperating with its investigation into the withholding of security aid to Ukraine — the event that is central to Trump’s impeachment and acquittal earlier this year.

If Miller wins confirmation, he will have to build his office from scratch. Congress did not include any emergency language for the new watchdog to oversee a separate $500 billion fund that help businesses that fall outside the SBA loan program. That means Miller or anyone else running the office will face routine bureaucratic hurtles for hiring staff. Miller won’t be able to simply bring his inner-circle with him and the positions will have to be posted widely.

The prolonged process will inevitably mean missed opportunities for lawmakers and policy wonks to tinker with the programs as they figure out the most beneficial and effective way to pump more money in the beleaguered economy. Right now, Congress is considering another relief package, but hasn’t yet seen what the first two pots of small business cash has yielded.

“The bottom line is that this pandemic is going to be with us for a very long time,” says Austin Evers, the founder of American Oversight, a liberal group that has peppered the Trump Administration with requests and litigation for public records. “It’s unlikely this is the only financial support that businesses and individuals are going to be receiving. If we can’t see the data for how the first tranche has been spent, we don’t have the tools we need in the future.”

Some in Washington are ready to start cutting checks directly to local relief funds and pull back from the lenders. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, have worked with Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., on a $50 billion proposal that would give to local pools of money, with the goal of helping small businesses with fewer than 20 employees and those with 50 employees of less in poor neighborhoods.

“Oversight makes programs work better,” says Kildee. “These administrations and these banks will achieve their goals more effectively when they know someone is watching and measuring. If no one’s watching and measuring, things get sloppy.”

Others take a longer view. Former GAO assistant director John Kamensky notes that Congress has already set aside $280 million in oversight for the pandemic response so far and boosted the GAO budget by $20 million, in addition to creating the Treasury’s Special Inspector General position and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. On top of that, there’s talk of a 9/11 Commission-style panel, House Democrats’ own inquiry and the already robust oversight operations on the Hill.

“Transparency is going to be there, I think,” says Kamensky, who spent eight years advising former Vice President Al Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative and now is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. “It’s a matter of getting it timely and getting it clean.”

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