House T&I Looks Back at Oversight of COVID Relief

House T&I Looks Back at Oversight of COVID Relief

August 02, 2021  | Brianne Eby

On July 29, the House Transportation and Infrastructure full committee held a hearing, “Assessing the Federal Government’s COVID-19 Relief and Response Efforts and its Impact.” The aim of the hearing was to evaluate oversight of funds and the impact of aid on industry stakeholders, but the hearing was interrupted as it went into recess so the House could vote on funding for the Capitol Police and National Guard, who would otherwise have run out of funding over the August recess. The votes went on longer due to a Republican-led motion to adjourn to protest new House guidelines requiring members to once again wear masks on the floor. Thus, only part of the oversight portion of the hearing was held on Thursday.

The first and only panel was composed of the following oversight stakeholders:

  • The Honorable Michael E. Horowitz, Chair, Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (testimony)
  • Heather Krause, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, Government Accountability Office (testimony)
  • Chris Currie, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, Government Accountability Office (testimony)
  • The Honorable Eric J. Soskin, Inspector General, Department of Transportation (testimony)
  • James Izzard, Assistant Inspector General for Investigations, Department of Homeland Security (testimony)

In his opening statement, Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) stated that in some cases, federal agencies did not move quickly enough to close oversight gaps, citing the 87 GAO COVID-19 recommendations since the pandemic began, only 16 of which have been implemented. He indicated that the USDOT was ordered under the Obama administration to develop an emergency response plan for pandemics that has not yet been delivered.

Given this was a hearing on oversight for the dispersal of COVID funds, a number of representatives took the opportunity to address issues outside the jurisdiction of T&I. For example, questions were raised on unemployment insurance fraud, the border crisis, and dispersal of stimulus checks to individuals no longer paying U.S. taxes. Within the realm of transportation and infrastructure, though, we’ll address modally-specific issues that arose.

Aviation

USDOT Inspector General Eric Soskin pointed to airport grant management in his opening testimony, stating that his team has recommended stronger controls on grantee reimbursements and a risk-based approach for detecting fraud, waste, and abuse. He said that while the FAA has begun assigning appropriate risk levels to grantees, the agency “will benefit from enforcing existing policies on grant management.”

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) asked the GAO representatives Krause and Currie about their recommendations with respect to a national aviation preparedness plan for responding to communicable disease threats. Krause reiterated a point that she raised in her testimony, that USDOT must work with federal partners to develop the plan. To date, there has been punting on the program due to confusion over the division of responsibility between USDOT, HHS, and Homeland Security. Krause and Currie both later indicated that while HHS and Homeland Security should work with USDOT to develop the broad components in the plan, ultimately USDOT should take the lead on the aviation-specific elements.

Regarding the American Rescue Plan’s Aviation Manufacturing Jobs Protection Program to pay for up to half of compensation costs for certain employees for up to six months, Krause indicated that the communication between USDOT and grantees has been good so far, but GAO expects an update on the program later this year.

Surface transportation

Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC) asked IG Soskin about his office’s audit on FRA oversight of Amtrak, which uncovered a number of issues like the lack of a fully adopted grant management framework. He indicated that FRA has accepted their recommendations to create measurable goals to assess oversight, implement procedures to track issues, finalize procedures to address Amtrak’s noncompliance with cooperative agreement terms, and implement information system improvements.

Much of the discussion focused on FTA, however. Krause indicated that while FTA initially experienced challenges distributing funds because the use of funds was expanded beyond what is typical (i.e. to include operations, and not just capital expenses), ultimately transit agencies identified “very few challenges” in receiving these funds. IG Soskin said that his office has two audits planned on FTA relief funding oversight: one on the design of FTA’s controls for requirements and oversight risks during the awarding and lifecycle of grants provided to transit agencies, and the other on the implementation of their controls. He indicated that his office looks forward to evaluating the oversight and expenditure of funds provided via existing programs but for new purposes.

Agency-wide

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) asked Currie and Krause about what can be done to build capacity for the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services grant program, which is administered through the Treasury Department and of which none of the $2 billion has yet been allocated. Krause replied that when an implementing agency doesn’t regularly deal with the applicant pool, it’s important for there to be robust coordination between federal offices. Treasury should continue working with USDOT to determine eligibility for the numerous operators applying to the program, she said.

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