“Signing statements by themselves do not really do anything,” said one expert.
When President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act on March 27, he signaled in a signing statement that he would not enforce some of the oversight provisions in the $2.2 trillion spending package known as the CARES Act. Democrats’ support for the massive cash infusion was contingent on a number of factors, including the creation of an independent Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to ensure taxpayer dollars are not misspent, as well as a new position of Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery within the Treasury Department to oversee loans and investments made by the Treasury secretary.
Watchdog groups have stressed that transparency is critical to holding the administration accountable for protecting public health and preventing waste and fraud, but Trump balked at the prospect of congressional interference in what the administration believes are executive branch prerogatives.
While critics blasted Trump’s move and some suggested that the administration had bargained in bad faith during negotiations with Congress, it is not clear the signing statement will have any practical effect on oversight.
“Signing statements by themselves do not really do anything …They do not invalidate the law and they do not violate the law,” said Steven Aftergood, a government transparency advocate and director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “In this case, the signing statement is likely to be a source of much annoyance to Democratic members of Congress because they insisted on oversight as a condition of passage of the stimulus bill. But now Congress is on notice that it should watch for any deviations from the requirements of the law in these areas.”
While there is precedent for presidents issuing signing statements, “this one is particularly egregious because it demonstrates that the White House did not negotiate in good faith with Congress concerning the coronavirus supplemental,” Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a grassroots organization that advocates modernization and accountability in government told Government Executive. “The last thing we want is [to] have the executive branch to pick a constitutional fight with the legislative branch when it is the incompetence and malfeasance of the executive branch that has made the epidemic significantly worse than it would have been otherwise.”
Rebecca Jones, policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, tweeted on Friday, “Taxpayers should be furious about this … What if the statement said: "I don't understand these stimulus checks. I don't recognize them and so Treasury won't issue?”
During an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin said he does not believe the signing statement violated the deal the administration made with Democrats to include oversight provisions in the stimulus package. “There’s constitutional issues and we’re going to have full transparency and the way this works is we have full transparency and reporting what we’re doing to the American public,” he said. “We also have a bipartisan oversight committee that will review our actions. We are fully comfortable that whatever we do we want full transparency.”
Trump’s signing statement specifically objected to the creation of a special IG for pandemic recovery at Treasury empowered to request information from other agencies and report to Congress any delays in receiving that information: “I do not understand, and my administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the SIGPR to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause, Article II, section 3,” the statement said.
When asked by Wallace if the new inspector general will be able to testify and report to Congress, Mnunchin said, “I’m going to leave that to the lawyers and to Congress to figure out. My full-time objective right now is to make sure this administration does everything we can to get this money into the economy quickly.”
The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an independent oversight body for the inspector general community, announced on Monday that Glenn Fine, currently performing the duties of the Pentagon’s IG, will be CIGIE’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee chair.
“I look forward to working with my fellow inspectors general on the committee to provide effective, independent oversight of the funding provided by the pandemic legislation,” he said in a press release. “Through our efforts, we will seek to promote transparency and ensure that funds are being used consistently with the law’s mandate to respond to this public health crises.”