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How Rep. Katie Porter wants to keep Congress’s $500 billion bailout in check

After getting the CDC to promise free coronavirus testing, Katie Porter is sounding the alarm about corporate bailout oversight.

Rashida Tlaib and Katie Porter speak to one another seated behind a desk.
Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Katie Porter at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in March 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Katie Porter would like a word.

The California Congress member has emerged as an influential voice on Capitol Hill amid the coronavirus crisis — she is leading the (thus far failed) charge to push for remote voting, and in a five-minute viral exchange she got the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to concede that the authority already exists for Covid-19 testing to be free. And she’s not stopping now, especially in the wake of the $2.2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed last week — which, by the way, she’s not thrilled with. Specifically, the $500 billion corporate bailout that has very few strings attached.

“Maybe we should still be debating that, but they tried to package it all in together,” she said in an interview on Friday, the day the bill passed. “I’m sure it produces a great press conference. I’m not sure it produces the best results for the American people to have these behemoth bills.”

Porter wasn’t in Washington to vote on the package — she was at home in California after a coronavirus scare of her own.

Congress has now passed three major bills in response to the coronavirus, and it’s unclear, legislatively, what their next steps are as lawmakers head out of town for several weeks for recess and the political will to do more tapers. That’s where Congress’s oversight role kicks in, both in making sure the measures it’s passed are implemented and in keeping an eye on the executive branch, where much of the response power resides.

Porter, who has a knack for upping the temperature during committee hearings, is pushing for remote hearings so that work can continue even if from afar. She’s particularly worried about the corporate bailout money Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will oversee and the possibility of Congress again being reactive instead of proactive in keeping an eye on it. “By the time the panel is set up and running, hundreds of billions of dollars could have gone to corporations with no engagement or oversight from this panel,” she said.

I spoke with the first-term Congress member last week about the good, bad, and the ugly of the stimulus package, the debate around remote hearings and voting, and what Congress can do, in terms of legislation and otherwise. Porter also pointed out that the CDC law that can pay for testing can cover treatment as well.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below:

Emily Stewart

So let’s talk about the stimulus package. Do you think Congress is doing enough, or is it too little?

Katie Porter

Parts of this stimulus are really strong — the relief that we’re providing to small business, this is the first time that I’m aware of that Congress has ever provided grant assistance as opposed to loans. It’s a very strong package on that front. The extension of unemployment is strong. I think the $100 billion to hospitals and front-line providers is really good. There are some really good things in this bill.

There are other things that are either missing or I’m concerned about. I think for providers, this still is a win. But for patients, there’s a missed opportunity. This bill does nothing to address the costs of treatment for those who are either uninsured or underinsured, or if you have high-deductible plans. This bill again affirms that testing is free, but the reality is a lot of people will hesitate to get tested, because they are concerned about the cost of treatment. It’s very important to help providers right now, but we shouldn’t be leaving patients behind.

This bill also has, I think, on the good side, significant funds for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] disaster relief and for state and local government, coming out of the stabilization fund, but it has way more money for the nation’s largest corporations in this $500 billion slush fund that’s going to be administered by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, so that’s a real concern for me. We obviously needed to pass a bill. We needed to make some of these changes urgently. With unemployment, we need urgently to help get people some extra money in their pockets, urgently to get hospitals and state and local governments these resources.

But I’m concerned about some of the potential for corporate abuse in this bill with that $500 billion fund, unless there’s really strong oversight, because there are not any conditions. There are very few conditions put on it right now — a couple of conditions around stock buybacks, but there could be a lot more. There needs to be a lot more. Then there’s some real missed opportunities to help patients and workers here.

We’re helping unemployed workers. We’ve got employment insurance, but what didn’t get included was requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency regulation on what kind of protective equipment and public health practices we should be doing right now for all of our workers who are still at work, who are still on the job in grocery stores, transit drivers, gate agents in airports, TSA agents, all of those folks, including health care workers.

We hit some targets, and I think we failed to take aim at others.

Emily Stewart

What else can Congress do? You’re saying there are these giant gaps, but also the Senate, at least, is going on recess now until April 20. Is this the end of what Congress does, at least for a month?

Katie Porter

One of the most important things we need to be doing right now is we need to be continuing to do oversight. I think from my role on the Financial Services Committee and on the Oversight Committee, I’ve shown that that oversight can really matter. It can really help give the American people confidence that government is working, is paying attention.

I’m incredibly frustrated with House leadership, on both sides of the aisle, for not being able to use these two months to come up with technology to allow us to have remote hearings. The fact that we’re not getting a chance to question Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, or Seema Verma, who oversees Medicare and Medicaid, or the CDC. We need to have a plan, and we needed to build a plan starting back at the end of January, so that we could continue to do our oversight work, even if we’re unable, for public health reasons or personal health reasons, to travel right now.

Emily Stewart

Have you made any leeway ... on the remote work for Congress? I know you’ve been pushing for that.

Katie Porter

I’ve gotten nowhere, and it’s been incredibly frustrating.

We started pushing for that before we left, before the House adjourned last time. It was just a very firm no from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. We’ve continued with 40, 50 members on our letter then, and it’s bipartisan. We then had a lot of bicameral support, with a lot of senators coming out in favor of remote voting. But again, to be clear, it’s leaders on both parties, because we had Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who would not support remote voting. We sent another letter addressing the constitutional issues showing that there is no barrier in our Constitution to taking this action.

Ultimately, there was a report produced by the Rules Committee that essentially concludes we don’t have time to figure this out before Friday, March 27, [when the House adjourned]. Well, okay, but that’s why we asked you to start thinking about it two weeks ago.

We can’t allow procrastination to be an excuse for failing to produce, and I would say this is equally true about the Trump administration. There was time to think about this. It was the last two weeks. When you wait until the last two days, then you’re going to be in trouble.

Emily Stewart

I think there’s a lot of hindsight, a lot of questions about what we could have done. I’m in New York, and we’re also talking about this a lot here, too. I guess my question is going forward, at this point, should the American people just think, “Oh, Congress isn’t going to be doing much for a while”? Is there any impetus in Congress to do more right now, or is it stimulus, and then we see how it goes for the next month?

Katie Porter

No. We’re going to keep working. The only message I’ve heard very, very consistently is that we are going to continue working.

Congress does most of its most important work in the community that we represent, listening to them, seeing what’s going on, hearing their concerns, and then taking those concerns to Washington. But it doesn’t have to be literally to Washington; they can be communicated by phone. We can draft bills from here. We can review ideas from here, write letters from here. We could, if we got the technological capacity up and running, be doing remote hearings from here to be able to give the American people the answers they need.

I am definitely planning on continuing to come up with ideas and put ideas into motion. As soon as I get off the phone with you, I just talked to my chief of staff about some outreach we’re going to do to local labor to see what kind of personal protective equipment our grocery store workers are having. All of that work is going to continue.

It really isn’t about what you see on the House floor. There’s so much more that we do than the bills. But, to be clear, we can be working on the next bill, starting today, starting now, and I think my colleagues already are working on the next bill.

Emily Stewart

One of the items of this bill that’s gotten attention is the checks that will go out to the public. Is everyone going to get them? They’re tied to tax returns — what about people who don’t file taxes?

Katie Porter

There will be the checks, the $1,200 per worker, phasing out, again, for people with incomes over $75,000. It’s not just for those who filed taxes. It applies broadly to Americans with Social Security numbers. What they’re going to be doing is using what are called 1099-Gs. That’s the form you get if you get government assistance, unemployment benefits, disability, those kinds of forms. The IRS issues you a 1099-G. We’re going to be using that data to identify people who may not have filed taxes last year, or the year before, whose incomes may be too low but are still eligible to get those checks. That process will take a little longer, though. It’s a little bit more complex to do, but those people are going to be getting help.

The other thing that’s really frustrating to me is that this bill really illustrates is this effort to put everything into one huge bill, to create so many results and so much complexity, but the American people can’t understand what Congress is even doing. There are a lot of provisions in this bill that we could have voted on without even requiring everyone to travel back. You pass them on voice vote.

I don’t know that I have very many colleagues who do not support the small business piece of this. I think that has the support of the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans, if not unanimous support. The $100 billion to health care providers, I think that has the support of the vast majority of my colleagues. But by trying to put it all into this gigantic package, that has slowed down some of the easier, more obvious pieces that maybe we should have been doing a week ago or more.

Emily Stewart

It makes it harder to hold out on things like the corporate bailout when it’s all tied together.

Katie Porter

That’s more controversial, and maybe we should still be debating that, but they tried to package it all in together. I’m sure it produces a great press conference. I’m not sure it produces the best results for the American people to have these behemoth bills.

Emily Stewart

A lot of corporations are hurting, but are corporations ultimately a winner here? Do we risk rerunning 2008, where we bailed out companies without guardrails?

Katie Porter

The guardrails in the bill with regard to the $500 billion corporate fund are insufficient, period.

While there are some accountability provisions, I wish they were stronger. Secretary Mnuchin can begin moving this money within hours of President Trump signing this bill into law. Yet the oversight provisions, which include the special inspector general and this oversight panel or oversight commission, the oversight commission doesn’t have to issue its first report until 30 days after the Treasury acts.

When people hear the word “oversight,” I think they envision something that is in real time, and creating more immediate transparency and an opportunity for the American public to engage. When I say to my kids, “I’ve asked you to clean your room. You didn’t do it. Now I’m going to stand here and I’m going to make sure you do it.” I think that’s what the American people think is happening, and that’s not necessarily going to happen with this. There is a grave risk. By the time the panel is set up and running, hundreds of billions of dollars could have gone to corporations with no engagement or oversight from this panel.

Earlier this week, I was on five different calls with different committee chairs all designed to allow Democrats to ask questions about this CARES Act. I was the only one who asked a question about the $500 billion fund in six-plus hours of conversation. People asked tons of questions about the stimulus checks. They asked lots of questions about personal protective equipment. They asked lots of questions about testing, but I was a really lonely voice in terms of this oversight piece and what we were going to do to make it happen quickly. I encourage my colleagues to really be focusing in on this, because the American people need to know and deserve to know where this money’s going.

We’re giving $100 billion to hospitals who are on the front line of these crises, and we’re giving five times that to corporations. By the way, the corporations can take that money that we give them and then leverage it to borrow trillions and trillions of dollars, which could ultimately lead them to be overindebted, and overleveraged, and require even more bailout.

Emily Stewart

It makes sense that this would be an area of focus for you because of your own background, right?

Katie Porter

It’s absolutely related to my background. It’s also related to how I fundamentally think about this job: Yes, it’s about delivering policies and passing legislation, but it’s also about oversight. The vast majority of the power to address this pandemic resides in the executive branch. That was true from the first case that happened in the United States, and it is still true today.

It’s really important that Congress passed this legislation and the bills before it, but there are still lots and lots of tools in the executive branch that they’re not picking up and using. The Defense Production Act doesn’t require an act of Congress. It requires the administration.

The bill exchange I had with Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, about free testing, that was an existing law that he could have used.

It’s incredibly frustrating to me to see the talking points about this bill come out. One of our talking points is this bill guarantees free testing. Well, first off, that was in the last bill we passed, too. What are we doing? Just repeating ourselves? Then, also, that’s already there in the law. We could do this by holding the administration’s feet to the fire, which as I showed takes literally five minutes. Literally, I had exactly five minutes to question.

By the way, that same law that I used to pressure Dr. Redfield on testing covers the cost of treatment. The bill we just passed does not provide for help in covering the costs of coronavirus treatment to those who are uninsured, underinsured, in high-deductible plans. A lot of my colleagues and I are frustrated about that. The response from leadership was, “Well, the Republicans wouldn’t agree to that.” Okay, but we have it in the law, so let’s do oversight to get the administration to use the tools that it has.

Leadership focuses on the legislation, but the most democratic part of the House of Representatives isn’t really the voting, it’s the hearings, because the leadership controls what comes to the floor for a vote. The committee chairs were the ones who were involved in negotiating these bills, not the rank and file. The rank-and-file members, the freshmen like me, our biggest chance to influence the process comes from the fact that every member, regardless of seniority, gets five minutes. Not having remote hearings is losing that, and it’s losing that accountability over the executive branch piece of this.

Emily Stewart

How much teeth does congressional oversight really have, though?

Katie Porter

Before that CDC hearing, I had sent a letter with my colleagues, Rosa DeLauro and Lauren Underwood, trying to get them to act, and there was communication with the CDC the night before the hearing.

But what that hearing did was it told the American people, hey, this government can help you. Government should be helping you.

It created a democratic groundswell of people saying, “Testing should be free.” It engaged Americans in telling their government what they want. That’s really the ultimate oversight here, coming from the American [people]. Those hearing moments, and then what happens after those hearing moments, as they get replayed on TV, as people reach out to our office, as they call their other congressperson and say, “Hey, I want you to push for free testing, too.” That’s really the ultimate kind of oversight.

On the stimulus bill, there’s a need for there to be oversight over a lot of parts of it. I’m concerned about the Small Business Administration’s capacity to actually process this many loan applications and grant applications. I’m concerned about the question you asked about how is Treasury going to identify people who should get checks but maybe aren’t taxpayers, don’t have to file taxes because their incomes are too low. That’s the work that committees should be doing. There’s sort of that little oversight.

With regard to the big bill, the oversight here is retrospective, and I think that’s a big mistake. After Mnuchin is given the money, then we’re going to write about it in a report. I think the American people are expecting a more active kind of oversight, rather than a study of what happened in the past. I think the more that we can try to take those oversight provisions and stop them from being history, and turn them into being engagements, the better off we’ll be.

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