March 28, 2020
Immediately after signing the historic $2 trillion coronavirus aid package, President Trump sought to curb oversight provisions in the bill by asserting presidential authority over a new inspector general’s office.
The move could presage a major battle between the White House and Capitol Hill as the Trump administration moves to implement the new law.
In a White House signing statement released Friday evening, Trump questioned the constitutionality of the law’s requirement that a new Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery notify Congress immediately if the administration “unreasonably” withholds information requested by investigators.
The new inspector general, who will be nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate, will be tasked with monitoring how the Treasury Department extends loans and loan guarantees to businesses, among other things.
The White House signing statement said the administration will not allow the inspector general to inform Congress without “presidential supervision,” calling it a violation of executive branch authority.
“I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [inspector general] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause, Article II, section 3,” the White House statement said.
The signing statement, which carried Trump’s signature, was written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, according to a Justice Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal deliberations. The statement reflects a long-standing view among conservative lawyers of the reach of executive power and the limits of congressional authority, but is also based in part on an argument made in 1977 by the Carter administration that the president has control over information given to Congress by the executive branch, the official said.
The $2 trillion spending law gives the Treasury Department broad discretion in how it sets up new lending programs. Trump has signaled he wants certain industries, such as hotels and cruise ships, to have access to the taxpayer-backed funding. The Treasury Department has not said so far how it will decide who receives money and what the terms will be. Trump said Friday night that his aides would be consulting with top Wall Street executives to make some of the decisions.
The administration agreed to create the new inspector general’s office in response to Democratic lawmakers who balked at giving the Treasury Department wide latitude to disburse more than $400 billion in emergency loans to corporations, cities and states. Senate Democrats voted down the initial Senate Republican bill because of the lack of oversight measures over this pot of funding, only agreeing to approve the broader package after the inspector general’s office was added to the legislation.
On MSNBC Friday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized Trump’s signing statement as “indicative of the difference between Democrats and Republicans when it came to this bill.” Congress will also soon establish its own panel, as allowed under law, “in real time to make sure we know where those funds are,” Pelosi said.
Earlier in the week, when asked about oversight of the lending programs, Trump told reporters that “I’ll be the oversight.”
Michael R. Bromwich, former inspector general at the Justice Department, wrote on Twitter Saturday that Trump’s “signing statement threatens to undermine the authority and independence of this new IG. The Senate should extract a commitment from the nominee that Congress will be promptly notified of any Presidential/Administration interference or obstruction.”
It’s unclear what other steps Congress could take if Trump seeks to weaken the new inspector general. The nominee only needs to be confirmed with a majority in the Senate, so Republicans could attempt to push someone through without Democratic support. Democrats could attempt to file a lawsuit, but doing so would likely take months and potentially never reach a resolution, according to Steve Rosenthal, a legal expert at the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
Given the scale of the money involved, Congress is likely to push back against Trump’s demands for presidential oversight over the new inspector general’s office.
“Whenever the government is trying to spend this much money, we should have good transparency and good accountability to the extent that we can,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan think tank.