Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., is one of the committee's two members.

Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., is one of the committee's two members. Sarah Silbiger-Pool/Getty Images file photo

The COVID Commission Has Never Been Fully Staffed, But That Hasn’t Stopped it From Issuing Reports

The oversight body has no Democratic members and no chairperson.

Two years after it was established, a commission to oversee certain coronavirus relief programs that was supposed to be bipartisan and have five members only has two Republicans on it and lacks a chairperson. Nevertheless, it has still been issuing its required reports.

The Congressional Oversight Commission, one of three oversight entities created by the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, was established to oversee the Treasury Department and Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System’s “use of taxpayer funds to provide economic stability through temporary, emergency lending programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said a statement from the commission to Government Executive. “To that end, the commission has published 22 monthly reports, held multiple hearings, and conducted regular monitoring and oversight of these programs.” (The 23rd report has come out since the quote was provided.) 

Tim Stretton, director of the congressional oversight initiative at the Project on Government Oversight, gave the commission credit for its productivity but said: “I don’t think they’ve ever been empowered, unfortunately, to do the work that Congress directed them to do.” Stretton and other observers spoke to Government Executive as part of our series examining pandemic oversight bodies

“Initially I gave them some credit for trying to at least get off the ground…absent having the chair rather than just waiting," Stretton continued. "However, I’ve been less pleased with them since they initially started working and I think the reason for that is I think not only do they still not have a chair, but as people started resigning from the commission, those jobs have never been filled.” 

The commission was slated to have five members: the speaker of the House, House minority leader, Senate majority leader and Senate minority leader would each choose one and then a chairperson would be appointed by speaker of the House and Senate majority leader in consultation with the House and Senate minority leaders. At its peak the commission had four members after congressional leaders could not come to an agreement on a chair. 

Commissioner Bharat Ramamurti, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's pick, stepped away from his role in December 2020 ahead of joining the Biden administration as the deputy director of the National Economic Council. Outside watchdog groups called for Commissioner Donna Shalala––House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pick who was then a congresswoman––to step down from her role in the wake of a stock scandal in spring 2020, but she didn’t resign until May 2021 after losing reelection for her House seat in November 2020. 

After noting in its statement that Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., are the only members left, the commission said it “continues to conduct oversight of both the Treasury and Federal Reserve’s CARES Act lending programs.”

The emergency lending programs from the CARES Act that the commission was overseeing ceased operations as of January 8, 2021. “On December 21, 2020, Congress passed legislation that prohibited the Federal Reserve’s CARES Act lending programs from being restarted or replicated without congressional approval, and it rescinded the remaining unobligated balance of the $500 billion previously made available under Section 4003 of the CARES Act for emergency lending programs,” said the commission. 

The commission did not address Government Executive’s specific questions on whether it has been hampered by not having a chair and/or only having two members from the same party as well as what, if any, more support it would like from Congress or the Biden administration.

“I think certainly it has been hampered by never having had a chair at its helm, but notwithstanding that when it had four members who were participating and it was equally balanced Republican and Democrat they were able to do some important work including issuing regular reports and following the money and doing hearings that brought to light how funds were being distributed,” Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president for the consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen, told Government Executive. 

Public Citizen was part of a diverse coalition of groups that sent congressional leaders a letter in July 2020 calling on them to name a chairperson.  

“Just because we’ve moved on to give further relief doesn’t mean that the CARES Act money shouldn’t continue to be watchdog-ed” as this was a huge relief package, Gilbert said. 

Similarly, Stretton said he thinks only having the two members left “severely impacts their ability to do oversight and function.” The commission’s last hearing was in December 2020, and Stretton said he would like to see more. 

When asked about understaffing and the leadership vacancy, a senior administration official on background told Government Executive that “many issues on [COVID relief fund] oversight have been raised to me and that is not amongst [them].”  

Back in June 2021, however, commissioner Hill urged Pelosi and Schumer in a piece for The Hill to appoint replacements for his colleagues who had left. 

“Even though the commission never appointed a chair, the commissioners were still able to operate effectively for the American people; however, now, with only two Republicans and no further appointees on the horizon, I am concerned about the commission’s efficacy,” wrote Hill. 

Also, “even though the programs the commission oversees terminated on Dec. 31, 2020, or shortly thereafter, the commission remains operational and continues to adhere to its statutory obligation to release reports through Sept. 30, 2025,” Hill said. 

Government Executive reached out to the offices of Hill; Toomey; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Pelosi; and Schumer for comment, but none responded. Also, the White House said they could not accommodate Government Executive’s request for getting comment from Ramamurti.