Updated July 15, 2020

Faced with the worst pandemic in a century, the federal government has promised more than $4 trillion in 2020 to prevent a second Great Depression – more in inflation-adjusted dollars than was spent during the New Deal.

How can journalists gauge the economic impact and the effectiveness of the federal response?

In sessions for the National Press Foundation, Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, gave a big-picture overview of all federal COVID-19 stimulus programs. Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, explained the role inspectors general and other watchdogs will play in documenting how the money was spent. And Philip Mattera, research director of Good Jobs First, detailed how journalists can drill down into minute details of COVID spending – even though many of those details are still shrouded from public view. He unveiled two databases to help with the task.

The first coronavirus stimulus programs were passed by Congress in the frenzied weeks after businesses, schools and most aspects of public life shut down in March 2020. The biggest legislative package – the CARES Act – included very visible programs such as the $1,200 checks most U.S. adults received and the Paycheck Protection Program intended to help small businesses.

But as both MacGuineas and Mattera noted, those are only part of the massive pot of COVID stimulus money.

In all, according to MacGuineas’ organization, Congress has enacted five pieces of legislation potentially worth $3.6 trillion to boost the economy. As a share of gross domestic product, the total is about the same size as the economic stimulus passed in the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-09. This time, however, the money is going out the door much more quickly.

In addition to the legislative action, the Federal Reserve is supporting the economy through asset purchases, emergency lending and other measures to increase liquidity of the money supply. The Fed’s authority extends to $5.5 trillion, MacGuineas said.

And the Trump administration took various administrative steps, worth at least $307 billion to support the economy by, for example, delaying the 2019 tax deadline.

All told, the congressional, Federal Reserve and administration actions have thus far cost $4.5 trillion and could be worth up to $9.5 trillion.

That spending compounds existing U.S. debt, which now totals about $25 trillion. Although MacGuineas is no fan of taking on more debt, she said now is the time to do so to prevent economic collapse.

The problem, she said, is that the U.S. boosted spending and cut taxes during the years of economic expansion from 2009 to March 2020.

This left the U.S. in a more “fiscally precarious situation than we would otherwise have been in,” she said.

A number of nongovernmental groups have created databases, tools and ranking systems to track the money spent, measure effects on unemployment and other economic indicators, and rate corporate behavior in response to the pandemic.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has a COVID Money Tracker that breaks down each fiscal or monetary COVID action and shows its impact on the deficit, either from increased spending or foregone revenue.

Good Jobs First, a nonprofit focused on government and corporate accountability, allows the public to drill into those stimulus programs, down to individual loans and grants.

Its COVID Stimulus Watch combines CARES Act recipient data with other information it maintains, including its Violation Tracker, which documents regulatory or legal cases against companies. In some cases, federal relief spending has compensated companies that have previously been fined for labor or environmental violations, or criticized for CEO pay, Mattera said.

The COVID Stimulus Watch has all available recipient data from all CARES Act programs involving businesses and non-profits. As of July 2020, information on 19 different programs is available, although the completeness of the data varies widely.

The Paycheck Protection Program from the Small Business Administration has released data on about 600,000 firms that received loans of $150,000 or more. That covers the bulk of the money going out, but only a small portion of the firms that received the loans. The SBA information is also often incomplete.

News organizations have sued the SBA for disclosure of all taxpayer spending.

Even as it was shoveling money out the door, Congress didn’t forget its oversight responsibility. As with the Great Recession’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, the CARES Act included watchdogs whose job is to monitor the money. But the effectiveness of the oversight is in question.

Brian said reporters should mine these new panels – or their individual members – for tips about COVID spending. Among them:

  • The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis in the U.S. House and the Congressional Oversight Commission with three members of Congress and one outsider are both tasked with tracking COVID-19 relief money. Both will produce reports on how relief money is spent. Brian also suggested reporters make an effort to reach out to any senator or representative on the bodies who are from their home markets; they are likely to be more helpful to a home-state reporter than a Washington one.
  • The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee has a dashboard that shows the totality of CARES Act spending, as well as data on federal contracts related to COVID-19, localized to the state and county level.
  • The Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery has been slow to get off the ground but is also tasked with scrutinizing the actions of the Treasury secretary in distributing $500 billion in CARES Act payments.

Brian expressed concern about the slowness of the oversight response and lobbying by big corporations that steered money to the well-funded while leaving out some small and minority-owned small businesses. Federal loans to hedge funds that have broad access to private capital, she said, were “outrageous and totally counter to what the Congress was intending.”

Project on Government Oversight will be releasing an extensive COVID money tracker later this summer. (Click here for its existing resources.)

She urged journalists to contact local businesses, workers and labor unions – and also to set up a tip line for people with information about CARES Act and other federal spending.

Consider the high-profile PPP program, which is designed to help small businesses maintain their workforces.

“My worry is we may find out in six months or a year that many of the recipients did not put their funds towards keeping people employed,” she said. “It's going to be too late by the time we find that out.”