Coronavirus Roundup: Democratic Senator Asks GAO to Expand COVID Review; IRS Stops Payment Incentives for Employees Returning to Offices
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
Vice President Mike Pence, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told governors on a call on Monday to use the Trump administration’s claim that an increase in testing explains the recent coronavirus case spikes, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times. Meanwhile, “seven-day averages in several states with outbreaks have increased since May 31, and in at least 14 states, the positive case rate is increasing faster than the increase in the average number of tests,” the paper noted. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus coordinator, were also on the call. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed.
On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House coronavirus task force member, said on WAMU 88.5 and NPR’s 1A radio show that he hasn’t spoken with President Trump in two weeks. He also said “we are nowhere near to herd immunity,” so that’s why he keeps emphasizing to avoid crowds, wear masks and wash your hands to protect yourself.
Sens. Rick Scott, R-Fla.; Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote to all U.S. governors on Monday asking for information on their spending of CARES Act funds. “Taxpayers deserve to know how this money is being spent,” they wrote. “We write to ask for an update on how your state has allocated funds from the CARES Act and other federal coronavirus response measures.” The senators asked for answers to their questions by June 26.
The Internal Revenue Service stopped its payment incentives on June 6 to bring employees back into workplaces. Instead of the 10-25% for doing tax season related work not possible through telework, the agency will give employees “a special act award” for coming back to offices, Federal News Network reported on Monday.
The Environmental Protection Agency created a “facility status dashboard” with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources to help regional leaders make decisions about reopenings. All employees have access to the dashboard as well, Federal News Network reported.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., wrote to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro last week to expand the Government Accountability Office’s review of federal agencies’ telework during the pandemic, as required by the CARES Act, Federal News Network reported on Monday. Hassan asked GAO to consider: factors that affected agencies’ ability to telework prior the pandemic, if/how agencies reduced these barriers, employees who were eligible to telework but not allowed to during the pandemic and energy cost savings from telework.
On Sunday, CBS’ 60 Minutes did a feature on the quasi-judicial Merit Systems Protection Board, which has lacked a quorum for over three years. Ousted vaccine director Rick Bright filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel and typically MSPB would get involved at the request of OSC. “Bright was the first federal official to publicly proclaim that the Trump administration's response to the pandemic was disorganized and so slow that it cost lives,” said CBS’ Norah O’Donnell. “Bright's case may be the most high-profile impacted by the three empty chairs but it's not the only one to involve a whistleblower.”
Top officials on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee wrote to congressional leaders last week with concerns that “previously unknown” legal decisions from the Trump administration could hinder their oversight efforts of the 2.2 trillion-relief package. “According to the previously undisclosed letter, Treasury Department attorneys concluded that the administration is not required to provide the watchdogs with information about the beneficiaries of programs created by the Cares Act’s ‘Division A.,’ ” The Washington Post reported on Monday. “That section includes some of the most controversial and expensive programs in the coronavirus response efforts, including the administration’s massive bailout for small businesses and nearly $500 billion in loans for corporations.”
Last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he would not make public the names of Paycheck Protection Program recipients, despite the administration saying it would. Then on Monday, he tweeted he will be having a bipartisan discussion to strike a balance between transparency and privacy protections. Pandemic Response Accountability Committee acting Chairman Michael E. Horowitz and Executive Director Robert Westbrooks warned in the letter, “If this interpretation of the CARES Act were correct...it would present potentially significant transparency and oversight issues because Division A of the CARES Act includes over $1 trillion in funding.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote to the newly confirmed Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery Brian Miller on Monday asking for his commitment to IG independence and integrity. “As expressed at your nomination hearing and in our private meetings, we remain concerned about your ability to be independent of this administration and hold it accountable for any misconduct or abuses given your time working in the White House Counsel’s office,” they wrote. “Moreover, our concern has grown as President Trump continues to dismiss other inspectors general...As SIGPR, you must resist influence or pressure, uphold the law and protect taxpayers’ interests – even if it places your job at risk.” Read more from Government Executive about the mixed reactions to his confirmation hearings.
The Interior Department OIG issued a “flash report” on Monday about how the department’s CARES Act funds had been spent as of May 31. Interior received $756 million from the relief legislation for its programs, bureaus, Indian Country and Insular Areas.
On Monday, the watchdog Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington launched a live tracker of President Trump’s “attacks” on IGs and legislation proposed to protect IG independence and integrity. “In total, we have conservatively identified 25 actions by President Trump to undermine the IG community since he took the oath of office. This tally does not include his public statements to the press or on Twitter undermining IGs, which have also intensified over the past few months,” CREW said. “If President Trump believes that his administration and its pandemic response are above reproach, why is he intensifying his attacks on the watchdogs tasked with investigating misconduct?”
A group of Democratic lawmakers asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons whether or not the correctional officers sent to Washington, D.C., for the protests following George Floyd's death were tested for coronavirus and/or quarantined before returning to work. They noted that some of the BOP officials came from federal correctional institutions in Hopewell, Va., where there was a coronavirus outbreak, and were seen without face coverings, Politico reported.
The Unlock the Box Campaign, a coalition of advocacy organizations, released a report on Monday detailing the risks and impacts of an estimated 500% increase in solitary confinement in federal and state prisons, jails and detention centers during the pandemic. “Solitary confinement creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that prevents sick people from reporting their symptoms, and puts incarcerated people, correctional officers and local communities at greater risk from COVID-19,” said Jessica Sandoval, campaign strategist for the Unlock the Box Campaign. “Rather than developing a comprehensive plan that would take at-risk people out of correctional facilities, officials at the federal, state and local level are reversing years of hard fought human rights gains by dramatically increasing this uniquely American form of cruel and unusual punishment.”
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode looks at the ways the pandemic could challenge orthodoxies of traditional government operations, as outlined in a new report by Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights.
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