The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) held their first public forum on June 3, 2020 to hear from ‘stakeholders’ representing state and local government, businesses, financial institutions, non-profits, and healthcare leaders. (Notably absent were any representatives of workers’ organizations.) The stated goal of this forum was to have panelists “provide insights into specific areas where the PRAC should focus its oversight attention to enhance transparency and accountability over emergency pandemic funds.”
As we discussed in our overview of the bailout accountability bodies, the PRAC, one of three oversight committees created by the CARES Act, is composed of 20 Inspectors General. PRAC has a testimonial subpoena authority that gives it powers above and beyond what they are usually allotted – namely, they can compel testimony from individuals who are not federal employees.
The overwhelming message from the forum’s panelists was that the programs created under the CARES Act have not gotten off of the ground due to confusion over implementation, lack of guidance from Departments, and broken or outdated infrastructure. However, only a few panelists mentioned the people these programs were created to help – specifically, people that have been laid off or furloughed for almost 3 months, many of whom have yet to receive unemployment insurance.
- Robert Asaro-Angelo, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, made a strong case for a federal unemployment insurance program. “To call our current, but necessary, economic situation ‘an avalanche’ would be an understatement,” he explained, pointing out that the state had received more than 4 times as many unemployment claims as when Hurricane Sandy hit the state.
- Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, pointed out that we are on track for another 100,000 COVID-19 deaths on top of the 100,000 we’ve already suffered – but that those future deaths are entirely preventable if the government simply funded and oversaw a competent testing and tracing regime.
- Ernest Grant, President of the American Nursing Association, explained that months into a pandemic nurses and healthcare professionals across the country are still short on personal protective equipment.
- Melinda Miguel, Chief Inspector General for the Governor of Florida, mentioned that the state has experienced unprecedented claims for unemployment insurance – but left out how many Floridians are still waiting to have their applications processed, weeks after making claims.
- Neil Bradley, Chief Policy Officer of the US Chamber of Commerce, complained that the terms of Paycheck Protection Program’s forgiveable loans – which are basically free money for companies to give wages and benefits to workers – were too onerous, because some day the government might question a recipient company’s certification of its need for the funds.
- The most notable absence from the forum was any representatives from workers’ organizations or labor unions, or even from civilians whose lives have been upended by the pandemic, and who are depending on the quick and accurate disbursement of federal aid to survive.
Overall, while the forum allowed members of the PRAC to respectfully consider the views of multiple stakeholders, there was little suggestion that the Inspectors General of the PRAC are planning to take any specific actions. We expect that the panel would be more incisive and effective in future when it picks up its testimonial subpoena authority and has some back and forth with the businesses raking in billions of bailout dollars.