WSJ, 3/31/2022 by Kimberly Strassel
Washington dysfunction is so comprehensive, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start. So there is usefulness in a recent White House missive to Congress—which in a few short pages neatly sums up the dishonesty and malpractice of today’s Beltway.
“Dear Madame Speaker,” begins the March 15 letter, devoted to the topic of Covid poverty. “We are notifying you of the following actions necessitated by the lack of critical funding.” Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young and White House Covid coordinator Jeffrey Zients explain that unless Congress supplies tens of billions more in taxpayer dollars, the federal government will no longer be able to “secure sufficient booster doses,” will end “the purchase of monoclonal antibody treatments,” will halt “critical testing,” and will scale back “preventive treatments for the immunocompromised.”
We are, somehow, Covid broke. How? Didn’t Washington, under the cry of “emergency,” spend $6.6 trillion in fiscal 2020 and $6.8 trillion more in 2021? Both years equaled at least 50% more in spending than in 2019—and all for “Covid.” Only a year ago, Democrats waved through a sixth Covid relief bill, President Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan—enough money to buy every Covid vaccine, ventilator, and hospital chain on the planet. Only this week, the White House put out a $5.8 trillion 2023 budget proposal. Yet the administration insists that without $22.5 billion in emergency dollars now, we again face Covid apocalypse.
Where did all the money go? Everywhere but to Covid. The Rescue Plan handed $350 billion in “relief” money to the states, and the Associated Press recently described its uses. Some $140 million is going to a high-end hotel in Broward County, Fla. Colorado Springs, Colo., is dumping $6.6 million into golf-course irrigation systems. An Iowa county is using $2 million to purchase a privately owned ski area. Massachusetts is ladling $5 million to cover the debts of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate.
Crain’s reports that even dollars earmarked for Covid aren’t safe. New York is sitting on funds that were supposed to go to homeowner assistance and small-business recovery but may not be needed as the pandemic wanes. Crain’s notes that “one watchdog raised the notion that the relief money—particularly $12.7 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds—could become a pile of unassigned dollars for the state government to use as it deems necessary.”
And that’s just the legal waste, fraud and abuse. One of Congress’s first Covid-relief bills created a committee of inspectors general to provide oversight of Covid funds. It’s done a good job—even as Congress studiously ignores its findings. The inspector general of the Small Business Administration reported that fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program and other loans was “unheard of—unprecedented.” “In terms of the monetary value, the amount of fraud in these Covid relief programs is going to be larger than any government program that came before it,” he told ABC News in August.
The Labor Department inspector general now estimates that more than $163 billion of $872 billion in Covid unemployment dollars might have been improperly paid, “with a significant portion attributable to fraud.” That’s a 19% improper-payment rate and more than seven times the $22.5 billion the White House recently insisted it needed in emergency additional Covid dollars.
Democratic “moderates” are expressing outrage over this mismanagement, with Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger calling the state boondoggles “outrageous” and “nuts.” Yet the Rescue Plan passed on an entirely partisan vote (including Ms. Spanberger’s), and these Democrats were nowhere to be found when Republicans were trying to limit how the money was spent. Many Democrats even now are resisting Republican demands that additional money come from repurposed, unspent Covid funds.
Not that Republicans have much to brag about. They boycotted the final $1.9 trillion Rescue Plan, but they were partners in crime in the five Covid bills that preceded it. Those bills included hefty checks to households that didn’t need the cash, blue-state bailouts, and giant new infusions to federal government agencies.
Americans are increasingly realizing that Congress is barely capable of anything but spending money—and that only via shadowy back-room deals and last-minute votes. In recent years it’s proved unable to pass policing reform, any trade bills, or desperately needed changes to immigration policy, to name a few failures. But dangle in front of lawmakers a juicy infrastructure blowout, or an omnibus plumped with earmarks, or a payoff to states and the education lobby disguised as a Covid “relief” bill—and they’re all over it.
The mismanagement of Covid funds highlights the absurdity of the White House’s new demand for more, not to mention Mr. Biden’s $5.8 trillion budget. If Republicans can’t make spending discipline central to their midterm message, they risk alienating a voter base that is disgusted with Washington largesse.
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