July 29, 2021

Chair DeFazio Statement from Committee Hearing to Assess the Federal Government’s COVID-19 Relief and Response Efforts

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) during today’s hearing titled, “Assessing the Federal Government’s COVID-19 Relief and Response Efforts and its Impact.” Video of DeFazio’s opening statement is here. More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Today we will hear about the impact the government’s COVID-19 relief funding has had on the transportation sector and its workers, and the challenges in overseeing the government’s response efforts and ensuring that these federal funds are managed efficiently and effectively.

The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences for our nation and the world. In the United States it has infected more than 34 million Americans and resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 individuals. The federal government was called upon to respond to this public health crisis in a way that was unprecedented on a national scale for such a prolonged period of time, and it continues to do this work on a daily basis across our country.

The pandemic also wreaked havoc on our economy, decimating the financial livelihood of many American workers and businesses, particularly in the transportation sector. Congress took unprecedented actions to help cushion the economic blow to workers, families, and small businesses.

The federal oversight community has been tracking this economic aid to determine if it has been used appropriately and to identify ways to ensure it is used as productively as possible. The oversight community has also worked to identify weaknesses in agencies’ management of COVID-19 relief programs and to ferret out individual cases of fraud. Our hearing today will examine both of these issues: the oversight of these funds by federal Offices of Inspectors General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the impact of this aid to transportation industry stakeholders.

Challenges do exist. There will always be individual bad actors seeking to defraud or financially abuse a program or federal agency whose mission is to serve the public and the nation. Some programs may also be impeded by poor management and ineffective leadership. The oversight community has been keeping tabs on these funds, identifying these fraudsters, and making recommendations to improve the management of federal COVID-19 relief actions and programs.

But in some cases, federal agencies, many outside our committee’s jurisdiction, have not moved quickly enough to close these oversight gaps and to learn the lessons from past national emergencies. The Government Accountability Office, for instance, has issued 87 COVID-19 related recommendations since the pandemic began and only 16 of those have been fully implemented.

Despite these issues, COVID-19 economic relief was necessary. Governors, mayors and local officials, labor organizations and business associations have all applauded the support Congress provided through legislation that helped to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, thwarted the loss of American jobs, and bolstered the economic security of U.S. small businesses. Unfortunately, we may not know how successful these relief efforts were because government agencies failed to track the number of jobs that were saved. I look forward to hearing from our government witnesses about how to increase transparency on this front. I also look forward to hearing ideas to enhance accountability, improve federal crisis planning and emergency management programs, and strengthen transparency of government expenditures in the future.

While I believe the COVID-19 relief funding was absolutely critical to addressing the dire economic situation and the public health catastrophe, I also commend the oversight community for identifying problems, highlighting cases of ineffective management and spotting cases of waste, fraud and abuse to improve the management of federal programs to help Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are several questions I hope our panelists will help us understand today.

  • What recommendations does the oversight community have to helping improve the government’s coordinated response to national public health and other emergencies, particularly for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)?
  • How can we improve reporting and transparency related to the use of federal disaster assistance funds?
  • How can we learn from the federal oversight community’s identification of problems in the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic to improve the response during the next national crisis?
  • From the standpoint of transportation stakeholders, what worked well in terms of the government’s response to helping them confront this crisis and how can we help support transportation workers and the critical transportation infrastructure we all depend upon in order to mitigate the impact of future national public health emergencies?

Thank you to all of our witnesses for being here today. I look forward to your testimony. With that I yield to Ranking Member Graves for his opening statement.