Highlights Administration’s unacceptable lack of transparency with Congress on COVID spending
WASHINGTON—During an exchange at a HELP Committee hearing with Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) highlighted how the Administration has failed to be transparent with Congress regarding how it has spent COVID funds—arguing that the Administration claimed to not have the funds to purchase monoclonal antibody treatments, antivirals, and other preventative treatments when it actually did. In March, Romney led his colleagues in pressing the White House for an accounting of how the federal government allocated trillions in taxpayer funds to combat the pandemic.
A transcript of their exchange can be found below:
Senator Romney: I appreciate the work that each of you do and the effort that you make to help the people of our country have healthier lives and have long lives. I realize that science is not all knowing. From time to time, there are mistakes—that is the nature of humankind. But I appreciate very much the work that you do, and I want to express my appreciation personally for that. I do have an issue that is tangentially related to what you do, but related to the Administration which you all are a part of.
That is that back in March, I and a number of other members of this committee sent a letter to the Administration asking for an accounting of how the prior COVID relief money had been spent and then also how new money that was being requested for emergency supplemental would be spent. As part of that response to that letter, the Administration released a statement regarding the lack of potential funding going forward. I want to read a couple of excerpts from that letter. One is, “The federal government is unable to purchase additional lifesaving monoclonal antibody treatments and will run out of supply to send to states as soon as late May. The federal government cannot purchase sufficient quantities of treatment for immunocompromised individuals, and the federal government will be unable to sustain the testing capacity we built over the last 14 months. Ending the purchase of monoclonal antibody treatments, scaling back state and territorial allocations, inability to purchase additional oral antiviral pills, inability to purchase new antivirals, scaling back planned purchases of preventative treatments.”
Again, with what the Administration provided to us and Congress, in response to our letter, was that the Administration would be unable to purchase therapeutics and monoclonal antibodies—unable to purchase.
In good faith, I and a number of other people worked over a number of months with members of this party and across the aisle to develop a supplemental bill providing the ten billion dollars to address this inability to purchase these things without the ten billion dollars. You can imagine my surprise when I found out that on June 8th, the federal government did in fact prioritize five billion dollars for the purchase of additional vaccines, 4.9 billion for therapeutics, and 300 million for additional monoclonal antibodies. But it chose not to do so in February, March, April, or May, again saying they had inability to do so. The Administration has recklessly and unilaterally spent taxpayers money. We have runaway inflation, but instead of taking a real inventory of funds they had at their disposal, they said, “Hey, we need more money.”
Washington operates on a relationship of trust between the respective parties—the Administration and Congress. For the Administration to provide information to us that was patently false is something which dramatically attacks that trust which I have, members of my party have, members of both parties have. I hope that there is an appreciation that for the Administration to say that they could not purchase these things and then, after several months, divert some funds and then purchase them is unacceptable and makes our ability to work together and have confidence in what we’re being told very much shake into the core. I would ask this question: If the Administration knew in March that it was feasible to buy these things, do you know why they waited to actually do so?
Assistant Secretary O’Connell: Thank you Senator Romney. Thank you for support in trying to get additional funds freed for us to manage the COVID response.
Romney: I didn’t realize they weren’t needed. I wouldn’t have worked as hard with Leader Schumer and with others over many weeks and intensive negotiations and gone to my colleagues and told them the money was necessary, had I been told that in fact they weren’t necessary. I know you’re going to tell me, “Hey, we needed to spend money. We had to divert.” That we could have been told. We were not told that. We were told, “We could not purchase therapeutics or monoclonal antibodies.” And now you have.
O’Connell: We had to do so with significant trade-offs, trade-offs that none of us wanted to make.
Romney: We are part of Congress. When you’re asking us for ten billion dollars, we should be apprised of what those trade-offs are, have that discussion, and help make that decision together. You shouldn’t be able to say, “Hey, we’re looking at trade-offs. We’re not going to tell you about them. Just give us some more money.” Isn’t that unacceptable in a relationship between an Administration and Congress?
O’Connell: We worked hard to be transparent with our funding needs and appreciate the support you’ve given us and trying to unlock additional funds. Making the decision to spend this money, taking it away from critical programs, is absolutely difficult. It’s something we didn’t think was acceptable. We are now at a point, because Congress has not given us additional funding, we’ve had to do these things that are unacceptable.
Romney: My time is up, we agreed on one word, that is unacceptable.