U.S. Rep. French Hill is part of the five-member Congressional Oversight Commission overseeing $500 billion in taxpayer-financed coronavirus-related loans, but a chairman hasn’t been appointed yet. That means it has no budget or staff, so when a legally required first report was due, Hill ended up writing much of the 16-page final document himself.
“I personally wrote quite a bit of it, yeah,” he told me.
The commission was created by the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion piece of legislation that was also responsible for the $1,200 check many Americans received, along with other provisions such as expanded unemployment benefits and forgivable small business loans.
The act also set aside $500 billion for the U.S. Treasury Department to loan to businesses, states and cities, and that’s what Hill’s commission is charged with overseeing. The money is expected to start flowing soon.
Prior to representing central Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District, Hill was a high-ranking figure in the Treasury Department during the first George Bush presidency, served in the Bush White House, and earlier was a staff member on the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. He came to Congress after founding and leading Delta Trust and Banking Corp. in Little Rock.
The commission is one of several overlapping and redundant mechanisms providing oversight of that $500 billion. Hill also will be watching the program as a member of the House Financial Services Committee.
That first report was due – well, it’s not clear from the law when the report was due, but Hill decided the best guess was May 9 – with following reports due every 30 days afterward. He said the four commission members waited for a chairman to be jointly appointed “imminently, we thought” by the Republican leader of the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.
Who knows how long that will take? The commission is evenly split between two Republicans and two Democrats, so somebody will have a majority unless they find a completely unbiased independent. Hill told me Tuesday that Pelosi and McConnell have exchanged names but haven’t been able to find someone they can agree on and who will accept the job.
Faced with that impending deadline, commission members worked collaboratively using their own staffs to prepare the first report. It was released May 18, nine days late, which is really good for Congress. Its format was based on the initial report by a commission that oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which was created in 2008 after the housing market crash. Remember that?
Will Hill’s commission amount to anything, or will it simply generate dust-gathering reports? Time will tell. The TARP Congressional Oversight Panel worked more than two years and spent more than $10 million. Hill believes the current commission can do the job cheaper because the CARES Act sets up better oversight mechanisms.
As for the CARES Act itself, he said it’s a reasonably balanced though imperfect response to the pandemic and to the economic shutdown, which he believes went too far. He believes more states should have adopted Arkansas’ relatively middle of the road approach.
We can argue forever about whether the lockdown was necessary, and we also can argue about whether Congress should have spent $3 trillion to shore up the economy in four separate actions. My view is I’m sure a lot of money was wasted, but this was an unforeseen emergency and Congress had to act fast.
I’m willing to give it more of a pass than I do with its usual partisan games and budget shenanigans.
But now that we’re here, I want the money to be used as effectively as can be reasonably hoped for. One way to do that is through transparent congressional oversight of that $500 billion in loans.
How transparent will it be? At least we know who wrote the first report.