Watchdogs Warn of Strain on Agencies from Pandemic Response

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship hearing to examine implementation of Title I of the CARES Act, Wednesday, June 10, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Al Drago / Pool via AP)Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship hearing to examine implementation of Title I of the CARES Act, Wednesday, June 10, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Al Drago / Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A new oversight board is warning about the strain of the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. government and calling into question Washington’s ability to effectively manage trillions of dollars in aid and keep federal workers safe.

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The inaugural report released Wednesday by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee cites an array of challenges in responding to the outbreak. Thirty-seven agencies summarized the obstacles they face, with financial management and health and safety at the top of most lists.

The report emphasizes a few core concerns, including the financial management of more than $2 trillion in new spending and protecting the health and safety of government workers at prisons, national parks, meatpacking plants and other worksites deemed essential during the pandemic.

The need to quickly spend money authorized by the economic rescue law and to manage new programs “presents a significant challenge to many executive branch agencies,” the report said. The sheer size of the largest rescue effort ever approved by Congress increases the risk for fraud and misuse, it said.

The warnings come as Republicans and Democrats in Congress have pushed back on the Treasury Department’s efforts to limit the release of data on what businesses and other entities have received loans from the government.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congress last week that the information is “proprietary,” but lawmakers want details released. GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, has said he is working with the Treasury Department to ensure that at least some of the data is made public.

The committee, established in March by Congress and made up of a board of inspectors general, also said in a letter to lawmakers that they are concerned about a legal determination by President Donald Trump’s administration on pandemic funding. They fear it could result in the administration withholding data on recipients of nearly half of the unprecedented $2.4 trillion in aid.

The committee’s first report was released despite the lack of a permanent chairman. Glenn Fine, the former acting inspector general of the Defense Department, was appointed to the job shortly after the law was enacted. But Trump sidelined Fine, demoting him and making him ineligible for the position.

Trump did not detail his reasons for the move. Democrats and independent watchdog groups saw it as an attempt to limit oversight of the billions of dollars being sent out by his administration.

The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is acting chairman of the oversight group. He said Wednesday that that the committee will continue to conduct “aggressive, independent” oversight.

Robert Westbrooks, the panel’s executive director, called the report a “road map to address risks” and other problems with the economic rescue law.

The 92-page report outlines several key areas of concern, including the need for accurate information about virus-related spending and the significant risk agencies face as the result of improper payments.

Similarly, while agencies always prioritize health and safety, the pandemic has created a unique challenge — “namely, preventing transmission of the virus in federal facilities, among federal employees and individuals with whom they interact.”

A shift in March to allow nearly unlimited teleworking at many agencies significantly reduced the risk of virus transmission among federal workers while maintaining most agency operations, the report said.

But employees at agencies where telework is not practical face higher risks of virus complications, the report said. Among them are corrections officers at the Bureau of Prisons and agents at Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration.

U.S. Postal Service workers, National Park Service rangers and meat inspectors at the Department of Agriculture also face increased risk, the report said, even as “agencies have devoted considerable efforts to ensuring that they can protect the health and safety of these workers and the people with whom they interact.’’

The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, the Labor Department agency that oversees workplace safety, is particularly “challenged in fulfilling its mission due to resource constraints and the urgency of actions required,’’ the report said.

OSHA’s performance has come under fire in recent weeks, as Democrats and labor unions accuse it of being “largely invisible” during the pandemic.

Instead of developing an emergency rule requiring employers to protect workers from the coronavirus, OSHA has relied on voluntary guidance that recommends companies erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations, among other steps. But the guidance is not mandatory, and COVID-19 cases have spiked at meatpacking plants, prisons, nursing homes and other workplaces.

“OSHA must provide clear and relevant coronavirus-related guidance to help ensure worker safety during the pandemic,’’ the report said, as well as “use its limited resources to timely respond to the significant increase in worker and whistleblower complaints.’’

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