In June, Michael Horowitz of the chief pandemic oversight entity told Congress that if the U.S. government hoped to keep track of $5 trillion in coronavirus aid, federal watchdog agencies would need more funds. Criminals had bilked billions of dollars from generous programs meant to help jobless Americans and small businesses in need, and Washington faced long, costly work to try to get it all back. “I can tell you the fraud numbers, and the investigative work, is growing,” Horowitz told a congressional oversight hearing. Six months later, the government remains overwhelmed in its task to find and retrieve stolen federal coronavirus aid, the Washington Post reports. Even as the Biden administration has intensified a focus on oversight, Congress has continued to underfund agencies whose chief responsibility is to monitor stimulus cash.
The persistent neglect has raised the potential that Washington might not learn from its mistakes before the next crisis. “People have a right to know how their money is being spent,” said Horowitz, chairman of the federal Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC). “Is it being spent in a way that’s wasteful? Did the money go to the right place? Was it defrauded? Accountability goes with understanding where the money went.” The large amount of aid involved has made oversight and tracking difficult. Public resources to explore who received federal money, and what they did with it, remain incomplete. The network of watchdogs who do the deeper digging have highlighted at times their own lack of resources — even after requests by the White House and others for more money. Repeatedly, Congress has failed to supply inspectors general with the funds they have requested, leading to a $26 million shortfall in five key offices just over the past two fiscal years. At the Small Business Administration, the inspector general has flagged potentially more than $4 billion in fraud targeting the top loan program to aid small businesses. Congress last year took back some of the watchdog’s money to pay for other programs. The inspector general at the Labor Department, which oversees the nation’s hard-hit unemployment insurance program, said it has already opened roughly 170,000 investigations — yet it remains “hampered” by a continued lack of full funding.