Acting OMB Director Russell Vought attends a Cabinet meeting on May 19.

Acting OMB Director Russell Vought attends a Cabinet meeting on May 19. Evan Vucci / AP

OMB Nominee Pledges to Work With Congress and GAO on Coronavirus Investigations

The Office of Management and Budget will “be as responsive as we possibly can,” said Russell Vought. 

During his confirmation hearings to be Office of Management and Budget director, Russell Vought, who is currently filling the role in an acting capacity, pledged to work with Congress and the Government Accountability Office on investigations, including those related to the novel coronavirus. 

Vought was the OMB deputy director from early in the administration and then took over as acting OMB director in January 2019 when Mick Mulvaney left to become the president’s acting chief of staff. President Trump announced his intent to nominate Vought as the permanent OMB director on March 18. He has been able to remain as acting director due to two exceptions under the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which typically precludes acting officials from remaining in their roles once they are formally nominated. During Vought’s tenure at OMB, watchdogs and Democratic lawmakers have raised concerns about the Trump administration's supposed lack of cooperation with various investigative probes.

Nevertheless, Vought said during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday that if confirmed he would continue to work with the committee and “be as responsive as we possibly can,” during a line of questioning by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., ranking member of the committee. “I’ll certainly work with GAO closely [since] it is our practice to do that.” He also said he would prioritize requests about the pandemic.

Peters said he asked GAO to review the Small Business Administration’s paycheck protection program for coronavirus relief funds, which had a chaotic rollout. However it’s his understanding the watchdog hasn’t been able to fully conduct a review since “the SBA has refused to cooperate.” Therefore, he asked if Vought would make sure all agencies cooperate with GAO.

“I’ll certainly commit to looking into it,” Vought said. “It is our practice, from an inter-government standpoint, that agencies respond, to be able to ensure that the public has the transparency and the committee has the transparency to be able to do its oversight work.”  

Last December ––when Vought was still deputy OMB director ––White House lawyer Brian Miller denied GAO's request for information during its probe of the administration’s handling of Ukraine aid. GAO reported in January that OMB violated the law by withholding security aid to Ukraine for policy reasons last summer. During his Senate Budget Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Vought repeated the administration’s disagreement with that finding. In a separate matter, on Tuesday evening, the Senate confirmed Miller to the newly created position of special inspector general for pandemic recovery.  

GAO has started or plans to start approximately 45 audits related to novel coronavirus testing, management and distribution of items from the national stockpile, nursing home infections, 1950 Defense Production Act use, student loan relief, unemployment benefits, relief payments and agencies’ use of funds. GAO is launching audits based on requirements from relief legislation, Congress and its own decisions. 

“Overall we are receiving cooperation” from agencies on requests for information, Chuck Young, GAO managing director for public affairs, told Government Executive. “Some agencies are slower than others, but we are working through any issues we encounter.” He could not elaborate, as these are ongoing investigations. 

In addition to GAO, congressional committees and inspectors general are asking the administration for information and data on its coronavirus response, to which Vought would have to respond in an acting or confirmed capacity. 

Before the Senate Budget Committee, Vought said he would work with this committee and others on reviews of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. OMB “worked expeditiously” to put out guidance for agencies on how to implement funds to fulfill the “twin goals” of speed and transparency in how dollars are spent, he said.