Pressure building on Treasury, SBA to deliver more data on pandemic stimulus spending

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The Treasury Department and Small Business Administration this week said they would deliver at least some of the data about pandemic stimulus spending. After all, it involves $2 trillion. One of the groups pushing for transparency has been the Project on Government Oversight. POGO policy analyst Tim Stretton joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for analysis of these recent announcements.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Tim, good to have you on first of all.

Tim Stretton: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

Tom Temin: You’ve been following this whole transparency question since the beginning. And before this announcement, what did it look like? It looked like – I guess, generally, like when are we going to see anything about how the spending was happening?

Tim Stretton: Correct. It’s been a very busy few months. And up until recently, we didn’t think we were going to be seeing any of this data from the PPP program. Thankfully, Treasury and SBA did release good metadata yesterday, which does shine light on who got these loans and the ranges for some of these loans. However, it is only about 15% of the actual loans ever made. So we’d still like to see SBA and Treasury release full details of the loans, including 85%, which have not been made public at all.

Tom Temin: And was the data so far that they have let it go released in a way that makes it easy to find trends in and easy to find information in? I mean, do they give the world’s biggest spreadsheet which poses problems of its own?

Tim Stretton: Yeah, everybody loves spreadsheets. To their credit they do they separate each spreadsheet by state. So you can look state by state to some of the organizations and businesses that have received these loans. You can see the ranges for the loans, they don’t actually release the specific dollar amounts. You can narrow it by zip code, industry codes, which are helpful. So to their credit I think they did try to make it user friendly for people to look at.

Tom Temin: But there’s a lot of analysis that can be done then at this point on what industries might have gotten more, what states might have gotten more. I mean, there’s a lot of – that’s raw data, but you can’t really tell any patterns at this point yet without some work.

Tim Stretton: Exactly. And that’s one of the things we’re doing at the Project On Government Oversight right now is going through the spreadsheets, seeing which businesses, which certain industries have benefited over the others. It appears lawyers and lobbying firms have done quite well, dentists and doctors, certain industries appear to be doing better than others. But what’s also interesting is seeing specific businesses that have gotten some of these loans. You’ve seen, again, certain lobbying firms. I think the Girl Scouts – you’ve seen certain businesses that have taken some more than others.

Tom Temin: Yeah, and I guess that’s a matter of judgment, whether it was legitimate or fair or proper, correct?

Tim Stretton: Correct. What’s interesting too, is they do have information on how many employees they were supposed to have hired or rehired. So it is interesting to see the ranges with our loans, and then how many employees they may have. There’s a lot of data to be crunched. We have the raw data right now. And we really do need to go through this and really look at the information very carefully.

Tom Temin: And as you mentioned, it’s only 15% of all the loans, I think they said they’ve had data on 4.9 million loans. Is that all of the loans or is 4.9 million just 15% of them?

Tim Stretton: It’s just 15%. I think when SBA and Treasury came out a week or two ago saying they were going to reverse course, and release up to 75% of the loan dollars made, I think they were very crafty on how they worded that. They mentioned they were going to release the vast majority or three fourths of the loan dollars made. But that’s not the number of loans that were actually issued. Eigty-five percent of the loans are below $150,000, and we do not have any information yet.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with POGO policy analyst Tim Stretton. And in your view, what would real transparency or complete transparency actually look like with respect to all this PPP spending? Or all the CARES Act spending?

Tim Stretton: That’s a very good question. I think most importantly, is that SBA with this PPP program, follow precedent and release all the data on these PPP loans, which are 7(a) SBA loans. SBA for decades has released names, data, loan and balance for all the loans that they’ve issued in this program. And for some reason, they’ve decided not to release this, they’ve called the proprietary information. They should follow precedent for decades and release this data. SBA and Treasury should follow existing laws that require federal awards, such as these loans be made public on USASpending.gov. So even though they’ve made progress in transparency and accountability and step in the right direction, there is still more that needs to be done.

Tom Temin: And they also said that for the smaller loans, which is the bulk of the numbers, they would only release the name and address associated with it, not some of the other data. I guess that’s a privacy provision or for the small businesses or would they be obligated to give more information on the fact that those ended up being grants for the most part and not really loans?

Tim Stretton: Well, the end of the day, they’re still awarded by the federal government and existing laws. There’s several laws on the books already that require all federal awards be made public. It was actually very interesting with the PPP program is on the actual SBA’s PPP loan application. It says approved loans will be made public. So despite telling applicants before they even submit their loan application, that their loans are subject to disclosures, they’ve now come out and said, “We are not going to release all this information.”

Tom Temin: And your essay POGO.org notes that there’s many other categories of spending besides the PPP that occurred, thanks to the CARES Act, because the loans weren’t all $2 trillion of it or whatever the final number ended up being. So what other data are you looking for that needs to come out?

Tim Stretton: One of the things we were pushing for was for the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which is a group of IGs and across the federal government to be able to look at the more than $2 trillion in the CARES Act, and back in May, the Treasury Department said they were not going to let the PRAC look at the spending data, because their interpretation of the law was that they weren’t going to be able to look at all Division A programs, which includes the PPP program, loans to economically distressed segments of the economy. It’s the $500 billion for the Fed in other segments of the economy. So these IGs were not gonna be able to look at more than $1 trillion in spending, which was not the intent of Congress. And we’re happy to see that it appears that Treasury has actually reversed their decision on that. And they are going to let these IGs look at this money. Which is important because it’s these IGs that have the experience and the qualifications to look at emergency spending. And they did this through the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board in 2009. And it’s only by looking at the spending now can we prevent waste, fraud and abuse. So the fact that Treasury has now apparently come out and said, we are going to reverse and allow this IG body to look at this data – it’s a great step.

Tom Temin: So you’ve got the GAO looking – they have a role in this – then this PRAC of the IGs – the equivalent of the latter day RAT board, I guess you could call them – also have a role in this. And then there’s the data releases in raw format, as we’ve seen, or CVS or whatever they call it – spreadsheets coming out in, from the agencies themselves. What should, do you think the overseers like GAO and PRAC concentrate on? Should they be doing the analysis of the spreadsheets the way many other groups will be doing? Or should they have some other angle on oversight?

Tim Stretton: I mean, I think it’s definitely important for them to be looking at these spreadsheets. Frankly, these are full time auditors. GAO is the auditors for the Congress, IGs have decades of experience auditing very complicated. These are – all these loans are very complicated financial transactions. They have borrowed More expertise than nonprofit organizations. And while there is definitely a role for civil society, frankly, with more than $2.2 trillion, more eyes on the spending, the better.

Tom Temin: I think that’s a good place to leave it. Tim Stretton is a policy analyst at the project on government oversight. Thanks so much for joining me.

Tim Stretton: Thank you, have a great day.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to his article at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.