October 18, 2021

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Buckeye and West Shore Pipelines to Pay $8.7 Million in Civil Penalties and Damages for Injuries to Natural Resources Resulting from 2010 Crude Oil Spill near Lockport, Illinois

11 min read
<div>The owner and operator of a pipeline have agreed to pay a $1.5 million civil penalty under the Clean Water Act and $7.2 million in damages and mitigation to resolve federal and state Oil Pollution Act and Clean Water Act claims arising from a 2010 spill of over 1,800 barrels of oil into a globally rare dolomite wetland from a pipeline near Lockport, Illinois. The complaint, filed along with the settlement, alleges that the crude oil spill injured a critical habitat for the federally-endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly.</div>
The owner and operator of a pipeline have agreed to pay a $1.5 million civil penalty under the Clean Water Act and $7.2 million in damages and mitigation to resolve federal and state Oil Pollution Act and Clean Water Act claims arising from a 2010 spill of over 1,800 barrels of oil into a globally rare dolomite wetland from a pipeline near Lockport, Illinois. The complaint, filed along with the settlement, alleges that the crude oil spill injured a critical habitat for the federally-endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly.

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  • Overseas Presence: Cost Analyses and Performance Measures Are Needed to Demonstrate the Full Potential of Providing Embassy Support Remotely
    In U.S GAO News
    The President has emphasized the importance of safety, efficiency, and accountability in U.S. government staffing overseas by designating the achievement of a rightsized overseas presence as a part of the President's Management Agenda. One of the elements of rightsizing involves relocating certain administrative support functions from overseas posts to the United States or regional centers overseas, which can provide cheaper, safer, or more effective support. This report (1) reviews State's efforts in providing administrative support from remote locations, (2) identifies the challenges it faces in doing so, and (3) outlines the potential advantages and concerns associated with providing support remotely.State has a number of regional and domestic offices that provide some management support remotely to overseas posts in areas such as financial management and human resources. For example, State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs provides support to posts in its region through staff based in Florida. State announced in October 2005 it would identify and remove additional functions that do not need to be performed at post and could instead be performed domestically or at regional centers overseas. State faces several challenges in trying to expand its use of remote support. For example, restrictions on what management functions non-American staff can perform might limit the extent to which services can be provided remotely. In addition, current funding arrangements for various regional bureaus and posts might limit opportunities for remote support to be offered from one region to another, while posts' reluctance to change is a further constraint. State is assessing whether certain regulations could be waived or changed and how institutional challenges might be overcome. There are several potential advantages to providing administrative support to posts from remote locations, and several concerns. For example, one U.S.-based officer provides financial management support to multiple overseas posts, eliminating the need for an American financial management officer at each post served, which, according to State, could result in cost savings. Officials at posts we visited reported they were generally satisfied with the level of support and customer service at a regional or domestic service center, though some noted concerns. However, at the time of our review, State had neither analyzed the potential cost savings associated with providing remote support nor systematically assessed the quality of support provided. In addition, many officials in Washington and overseas were unaware of the full breadth of support offered by regional service centers.
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    What GAO Found The nation is concurrently responding to, and recovering from, the COVID-19 pandemic, as the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined in recent months. Among the factors that have contributed to the decline in these metrics, the development and administration of multiple vaccines across the nation have been key. About 53.1 percent of the U.S. population 12 years and older—almost 150.7 million individuals—had been fully vaccinated as of June 23, 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Continuing to deliver “shots in arms” will be a priority for the federal government, as individuals yet to be vaccinated remain at risk from COVID-19 and as new variants of the virus continue to emerge. A successful vaccination program is seen as essential to further stabilizing the economy and safely returning to prepandemic activities, such as in-person learning for students in the 2021–22 school year. The economic and public health recovery from the pandemic and its effects remains fragile. Data from the Department of Labor show that labor market conditions improved in March, April, May, and June 2021 but remained worse relative to the prepandemic period. Additionally, new reported COVID-19 cases from June 5 to June 18, 2021, averaged about 13,000 per day—less than a tenth of the peak reported in January 2021 (see figure). Reported COVID-19 Cases per Day in the U.S., Mar. 1, 2020–June 18, 2021 Since GAO began reporting on the federal response to the pandemic in June 2020, it has made 72 recommendations. The agencies generally agreed with 57 of these recommendations and are in the process of implementing a majority of them; 16 of these recommendations have been fully implemented. GAO also made four matters for congressional consideration, three of which remain open. In this report, GAO is making 15 new recommendations in the areas of federal preparedness and response, delivery of benefits and services, and program integrity. GAO’s recommendations, if effectively implemented, can help improve the government’s ongoing response and recovery efforts as well as help it to prepare for future public health emergencies. GAO’s new recommendations are discussed below. COVID-19 Testing CDC has opportunities to improve collaboration and communication with stakeholders. Prior to the COVID-19 response, CDC had not developed a plan for enhancing laboratory testing capacity that identifies objectives and outlines agency and stakeholder roles and responsibilities for achieving these objectives within defined time frames. Doing so would be consistent with the stated goal of its own memorandum of understanding with public health and private laboratory partners and would also be consistent with other leading principles on sound planning that GAO has identified in its prior work. GAO recommends that CDC work with appropriate stakeholders to develop a plan to enhance surge capacity for laboratory testing. CDC agreed with this recommendation. CDC initially developed a flawed COVID-19 diagnostic test, which caused challenges for the rollout of testing nationwide. CDC has taken steps to improve its process for developing tests, but additional actions could help strengthen CDC’s preparedness and enhance the nation’s testing capacity during a future infectious disease outbreak. For example, establishing contracts with test kit manufacturers prior to a public health emergency could allow CDC to supplement the supply produced by CDC and aid in the rapid manufacturing and deployment of test kits during a future public health emergency. GAO recommends that CDC assess the agency’s needs for goods and services for the manufacturing and deployment of diagnostic test kits in public health emergencies, including the potential role of establishing contracts in advance of an emergency. CDC agreed with this recommendation. Strategic National Stockpile The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) contains a multibillion dollar inventory of medical countermeasures—drugs, vaccines, supplies, and other materials—to respond to a broad range of public health emergencies. The SNS can be used as a short-term stopgap buffer when the supply of materials may not be immediately available in affected areas during a public health emergency. The Department of Health and Humans Services’ (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) oversees the SNS. The Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE), an interagency group of experts, advises the Secretary of Health and Human Services in prioritizing, developing, procuring, deploying, and effectively using medical supplies and other countermeasures for the SNS. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, ASPR began restructuring the PHEMCE. This led to concerns from interagency partners regarding the effectiveness of interagency collaboration and transparency, such as a lack of clarity on how ASPR makes decisions about medical countermeasure issues, including for the SNS inventory. In addition, while the PHEMCE was being restructured, ASPR did not conduct SNS annual reviews from 2017 through 2019; these reviews result in recommendations to HHS regarding SNS procurement and are provided to Congress. According to the former Assistant Secretary who initiated the restructure, although PHEMCE was successful in advancing the development of medical countermeasures, its consensus-driven process did not reflect the urgency needed and PHEMCE proceedings created security vulnerabilities. ASPR officials acknowledged that the changes ASPR made to the PHEMCE from 2018 to 2020 did not fully achieve the desired aims and created other challenges. The office is in the process of reassessing and reestablishing new organizational processes for the PHEMCE, but it has not yet finalized planning documents, including an organizational charter and implementation plan, to guide those efforts. GAO recommends that ASPR develop and document its plans for restructuring the PHEMCE. The plans should describe how ASPR will ensure a transparent and deliberative process that engages interagency partners in PHEMCE responsibilities outlined in the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2019, including those related to SNS annual reviews. These plans should also incorporate GAO’s leading practices to foster more effective collaboration, while ensuring that sensitive information is appropriately protected. HHS—which includes ASPR—agreed with this recommendation. PHEMCE interagency partners raised concerns about the transparency of PHEMCE activities and deliberations, and ASPR lacked documentation of PHEMCE activities and deliberations after 2017. ASPR was unable to provide documentation to GAO regarding PHEMCE decisions or recommendations made from 2018 to 2020; the rationale for the changes to the PHEMCE; or PHEMCE meeting agendas and minutes from 2018 to 2020. Not maintaining such documentation is inconsistent with HHS’s policy for records management and leaves Congress and key stakeholders without assurance that steps taken are advancing national preparedness for natural, accidental, and intentional threats. GAO recommends that ASPR implement records management practices that include developing, maintaining, and securing documentation related to PHEMCE activities and deliberations, including those related to the SNS. HHS, including ASPR, agreed with this recommendation. The nationwide need for supplies to respond to COVID-19 quickly exceeded the quantity of supplies contained in the SNS. Thus, ASPR used procurement processes in addition to its standard process, including direct shipment of supplies from vendors. Through this direct shipment process, supplies purchased by ASPR were not used to replenish the SNS but instead were primarily distributed from vendors directly to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments. Although ASPR has documented policies and procedures for its standard procurement process, ASPR did not have documented policies and procedures, including related control and monitoring activities, to address payment integrity risks for its direct shipment procurement process. Without written policies and procedures documenting how ASPR tracks the direct shipment and receipt of supplies before issuing payments, there is an increased risk that ASPR may make improper payments to vendors for incorrect supplies or quantities or for supplies that the intended recipients did not receive. In addition, it is difficult for management to assess the adequacy of controls over the direct shipment procurement process, and ASPR lacks assurance that its staff fully understand the process and properly and consistently perform their duties. GAO recommends that, to strengthen the current procedures for the SNS, HHS update its policies and procedures for the SNS, including related control and monitoring activities, to document the direct shipment procurement process and address payment integrity risks. Although HHS, including ASPR, did not agree with GAO regarding the need to address payment integrity risks, it stated that HHS will update its policies and procedures, including related control and monitoring activities to document the direct shipment procurement process. Domestic Medical Supply Manufacturing Before the pandemic, the U.S. generally depended on foreign suppliers for certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE), including nitrile gloves and surgical gowns. Multiple stakeholders representing manufacturers, distributors, and other purchasers noted that meaningful, transparent federal engagement with industry could enhance the resilience of domestic manufacturing and the supply chain. According to some stakeholders, such engagement with the private sector could help ramp up private investment in domestic PPE manufacturing, among other things. In January 2021, GAO reported that HHS had not developed a process for engaging with key nonfederal stakeholders and Congress for development of a supply chain strategy for pandemic preparedness, including the role of the SNS. GAO recommended that HHS do so, and the department generally agreed with GAO’s recommendation. However, as of May 2021, HHS had not implemented this recommendation. GAO continues to underscore that engaging with key nonfederal stakeholders—in meaningful, proactive ways to obtain their business and industry expertise—and with Congress is critical for developing strategies to build a sustainable domestic medical supply manufacturing base. HHS COVID-19 Funding As of May 31, 2021, Congress had appropriated to HHS approximately $484 billion in COVID-19 funds in six relief laws. The majority of HHS’s appropriations from the first five relief laws had been obligated and about half had been expended. Specifically, as of May 31, 2021, the department reported the following (see figure): Of the $324 billion appropriated in the first five COVID-19 relief laws, about $253 billion had been obligated (about 78 percent) and about $168 billion had been expended (about 52 percent). Of the $160 billion appropriated in the sixth law, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), about $75 billion had been obligated (about 47 percent) and about $3 billion had been expended (about 2 percent). HHS’s Reported COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures from COVID-19 Relief Laws, as of May 31, 2021 The percentage of obligations and expenditures varied across selected COVID-19 response activities for a variety of reasons, including the nature of the activities, their planned uses, and the timing of the funds provided through the six COVID-19 relief laws. HHS uses spend plans to communicate information about its COVID-19 spending. The first five COVID-19 relief laws generally require the department to develop, update, and provide these spend plans to Congress every 60 days. The sixth relief law, ARPA, does not require a spend plan, but according to HHS officials, the department is preparing a consolidated plan that captures the first five relief laws and a separate spend plan for funding provided through ARPA. The consolidated spend plan is under internal review at HHS and the ARPA spend plan is still being finalized. As of May 2021, GAO had received and reviewed a total of 15 spend plans—the original spend plans and subsequent updates—provided by HHS. GAO found that the most current spend plans generally do not include time frames for obligating the remaining funds, which is useful information for oversight and informing future funding decisions by Congress. Guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to federal agencies, including HHS, noted the importance of spending transparency and regular reporting to help safeguard taxpayer dollars. GAO recommends that HHS communicate information about, and facilitate oversight of, the department’s use of COVID-19 relief funds by providing projected time frames for its planned spending in the spend plans it submits to Congress. HHS partially concurred with the recommendation and stated that the department would aim to incorporate some time frames on planned spending where that information may be available such as time frames for select grants to states. Higher Education Grants The Department of Education (Education) has faced inherent challenges that increase the risk of improper payments for its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants to institutions of higher education to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19. For example, funding needed to be processed and distributed expeditiously because of health and economic threats to institutions of higher education posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO tested Education’s procedures for approving and processing HEERF grants through a sample of obligations and found that the department had not effectively designed and implemented procedures needed to identify erroneous obligations after awarding the grants. GAO estimated that for 5.5 percent of schools receiving HEERF grants (about 262 of 4,764 schools in GAO’s sample), Education awarded grants that exceeded the amounts allocated—including three instances in GAO’s sample for which Education obligated $20 million more than was allocated. Officials from Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education stated that because of time and staffing constraints and the high volume of grants administered, they did not regularly perform quality assurance reviews after obligation to identify and correct erroneous obligations. GAO recommends Education design and implement procedures for regularly conducting quality assurance reviews of obligated amounts for higher education grants, including HEERF, to help identify and correct erroneous obligations in a timely manner. Education agreed with this recommendation. Coronavirus State and Local Relief and Recovery Funds COVID-19 relief laws appropriated $500 billion to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to provide direct funding to states, localities, tribal governments, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories to help them respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. This amount includes $150 billion that the CARES Act appropriated to Treasury for the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) in March 2020 as well as $350 billion that ARPA appropriated to Treasury for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CSLFRF) in March 2021. Recipients can use CRF payments to offset costs related to either the pandemic’s direct effects (e.g., public health needs) or its indirect effects (e.g., harm to individuals or businesses as a result of COVID-19-related closures). The CSLFRF provides payments to these recipients to cover a broader range of costs stemming from the fiscal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Single Audit Act establishes requirements for states, localities, Indian tribes, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and nonprofit organizations that receive federal awards to undergo single audits of those awards annually when their expenditures meet a certain dollar threshold. Single audits are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard the use of the billions of dollars distributed through the CRF and CSLFRF. Auditors who conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which provides guidelines and policy for performing single audits. After consultation with federal agencies, OMB annually updates and issues the supplement. Auditors have reported that the timing of the supplement is critical in allowing them to effectively plan their work. The timely issuance of single audit guidance is critical to ensuring timely completion and reporting of single audits to inform the federal government about actions needed to help safeguard the use of the billions of dollars distributed through the CRF and CSLFRF. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue timely and sufficient single audit guidance for auditing recipients’ uses of payments from the CSLFRF. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Economic Impact Payments The CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, and ARPA authorized Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to issue three rounds of economic impact payments (EIP) as direct payments to help individuals alleviate financial stress due to the pandemic. (See figure.) To publicize information about how to file a tax return with the IRS to receive an EIP, IRS partners with organizations that work with communities that may not traditionally interact with IRS, such as lower-income families, senior citizens, veterans, tribal communities, and families with mixed-immigration status. According to officials from IRS partner organizations, ensuring eligible nonfilers receive their payments continues to be a challenge. Partners also told GAO their outreach efforts to nonfilers could be more effective if the partners had current data that could help identify specific communities of nonfilers who may need assistance. Total Number and Amount of Economic Impact Payments (EIP) Disbursed, Rounds 1, 2, and 3, as of May 28, 2021 In January 2021, Treasury began analyzing nearly 9 million notices it had sent to nonfilers who may be eligible for the first round of EIP payments. However, Treasury does not plan to complete this analysis until fall 2021, more than 6 months after the third round of EIP payments began to be issued. This timing would limit the findings’ usefulness for informing EIP outreach efforts. By waiting to complete the analysis, Treasury and IRS are missing an opportunity to identify communities that may have a higher number of nonfilers and to use that information to inform their outreach efforts as well as the efforts of their outreach partners.GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, release interim findings on the effectiveness of the notices it sent in September 2020 to potentially EIP-eligiblenonfilers; incorporate that analysis into IRS outreach efforts as appropriate; and then, if necessary, release an update based on new analysis after the 2021 filing season. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Tax Relief for Businesses To provide liquidity to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CARES Act and other COVID-19 relief laws included tax measures to reduce certain tax obligations, including measures related to net operating loss carryback claims. In some cases, these reductions of obligations led to cash refunds. The Internal Revenue Code and the CARES Act generally require IRS to issue certain refunds within 90 days from the date when a complete application for a tentative carryback adjustment is filed or 90 days from the last day of the month in which the return is due, whichever is later. IRS data show that the agency is not meeting the statutory refund requirement for these relief measures and that as of May 1, 2021, the average processing time for refunds was 154 days, excluding additional time for final processing and distribution. IRS officials said it is taking longer to process returns because IRS facilities that process paper returns continue to operate at reduced capacity to accommodate social distancing. In the meantime, transparent communication about these issues could help taxpayers know when to expect their refunds. Specifically, an explanation on IRS’s website that processing times for tentative refunds may exceed the expected 90 days because of service disruptions would provide taxpayers with more accurate information and expectations for receiving a refund. GAO recommends that IRS clearly communicate on its website that there are delays beyond the statutory 90-day timeline in processing tentative refunds. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. 2021 Tax Filing Season IRS is experiencing delays in processing certain returns received in 2021, resulting in extended time frames for processing returns for some taxpayers. IRS reported that it is taking longer than usual to manually review some of these returns. Specifically, as of the end of the 2021 filing season, IRS had about 25.5 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including about 1.2 million returns from its 2020 backlog, and 13.7 million returns that it had suspended because of errors. IRS staff must manually review these returns with errors. IRS typically has unprocessed returns in its inventory at the end of the filing season, but not to this extent. For example, at the end of the 2019 filing season, IRS had 8.3 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including 2.7 million returns suspended for errors. IRS’s annual tax filing activities include processing more than 150 million individual and business tax returns electronically or on paper. With significantly more returns currently being held for manual review than in prior years, more taxpayers are trying to get information about the status of their returns and refunds. However, taxpayers have had difficulty obtaining status updates on their refunds from IRS, either by phone or online. IRS’s website does not contain all of the relevant information regarding delays in processing 2021 returns and issuing taxpayers’ refunds. Additionally, IRS’s automated message on its toll-free telephone line for individual taxpayers has not been updated to explain refund delays or to include any other alerts associated with the 2021 filing season.GAO recommends that IRS update relevant pages of its website and, if feasible, add alerts to its toll-free telephone lines to more clearly and prominently explain the nature and extent of individual refund delays occurring for returns that taxpayers filed in 2021. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. This report contains additional recommendations related to disseminating information related to leave benefits for employees. Why GAO Did This Study As of mid-June 2021, the U.S. had about 33.4 million reported cases of COVID-19 and about 593,000 reported deaths, according to CDC. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions from the pandemic. 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COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures for Six Major Spending Areas, as of July 2020 Spending area Appropriationsa ($ billions) Preliminary obligationsb ($ billions) Preliminary expendituresb ($ billions) Business Loan Programs 687.3 538.1 522.2c Economic Stabilization and Assistance to Distressed Sectors 500.0 30.4 19.2c Unemployment Insurance 376.4 301.1 296.8 Economic Impact Payments 282.0 273.5 273.5 Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund 231.7 129.6 95.9 Coronavirus Relief Fund 150.0 149.5 149.5 Total for six spending areas 2,227.4 1,422.2 1,357.0 Source: GAO analysis of data from the Department of the Treasury, USAspending.gov, and applicable agencies. | GAO-20-708 aCOVID-19 relief appropriations reflect amounts appropriated under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, Pub. L. No. 116-123, 134 Stat. 146; Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Pub. L. No. 116-127, 134 Stat. 178 (2020); CARES Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, 134 Stat. 281 (2020); and Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, Pub. L. No. 116-139, 134 Stat. 620 (2020). These data are based on appropriations warrant information provided by the Department of the Treasury as of July 31, 2020. These amounts could increase in the future for programs with indefinite appropriations, which are appropriations that, at the time of enactment, are for an unspecified amount. In addition, this table does not represent transfers of funds that federal agencies may make between appropriation accounts or transfers of funds they may make to other agencies. bObligations and expenditures data for July 2020 are based on preliminary data reported by applicable agencies. cThese expenditures relate to the loan subsidy costs (the loan’s estimated long-term costs to the United States government). The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to assess the impact of the federal response on public health and the economy. The following are examples of health care and economic indicators that GAO is monitoring. Health care. GAO’s indicators are intended to assess the nation’s immediate response to COVID-19 as it first took hold, gauge its recovery from the effects of the pandemic over the longer term, and determine the nation’s level of preparedness for future pandemics, involving subsequent waves of either COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. For example, to assess the sufficiency of testing—a potential indicator of the system’s response and recovery—GAO suggests monitoring the proportion of tests in a given population that are positive for infection. A higher positivity rate can indicate that testing is not sufficiently widespread to find all cases. That is higher positivity rates can indicate that testing has focused on those most likely to be infected and seeking testing because they have symptoms, and may not be detecting COVID-19 cases among individuals with no symptoms. Although there is no agreed-upon threshold for the test positivity rate, governments should target low positivity rates. The World Health Organization recommends a test positivity rate threshold of less than 5 percent over a 14-day period. As of August 12, 2020, 12 states and the District of Columbia had met this threshold (38 states had not). Resolve to Save Lives, another organization, recommends a threshold of less than 3 percent over a 7-day period, and 11 states and the District of Columbia had met this threshold (39 states had not) as of August 12, 2020. GAO also suggests monitoring mortality from all causes compared to historical norms as an indicator of the pandemic’s broad effect on health care outcomes. Mortality rates have tended to be consistent from year to year. This allows an estimation of how much mortality rose with the onset of the pandemic, and provides a baseline by which to judge a return to pre-COVID levels. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, about 125,000 more people died from all causes January 1–June 13 than would normally be expected (see figure). CDC Data on Higher-Than-Expected Weekly Mortality, January 1 through June 13, 2020 Note: The figure shows the number of deaths from all causes in a given week that exceeded the upper bound threshold of expected deaths calculated by CDC on the basis of variation in mortality experienced in prior years. Changes in the observed numbers of deaths in recent weeks should be interpreted cautiously as this figure relies on provisional data that are generally less complete in recent weeks. Data were accessed on July 16, 2020. Economy. GAO updated information on a number of indicators to facilitate ongoing and consistent monitoring of areas of the economy supported by the federal pandemic response, in particular the COVID-19 relief laws. These indicators suggest that economic conditions—including for workers, small businesses, and corporations—have improved modestly in recent months but remain much weaker than prior to the pandemic. In June and July initial regular unemployment insurance (UI) claims filed weekly averaged roughly 1.4 million (see figure), which was six and a half times higher than average weekly claims in 2019, but claims have decreased substantially since mid-March, falling to 971,000 in the week ending August 8, 2020. Increasing infections in some states and orders to once again close or limit certain businesses are likely to pose additional challenges for potentially fragile economic improvements, especially in affected sectors, such as the leisure and hospitality sector. National Weekly Initial Unemployment Insurance Claims, January 2019–July 2020 Note: See figure 5 in the report. As GAO reported in June, consistent with the urgency of responding to serious and widespread health issues and economic disruptions, federal agencies gave priority to moving swiftly where possible to distribute funds and implement new programs designed to help small businesses and the newly unemployed, for example. However, such urgency required certain tradeoffs in achieving transparency and accountability goals. To make mid-course corrections, GAO made three recommendations to federal agencies: To reduce the potential for duplicate payments from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)—a program that provides guaranteed loans through lenders to small businesses—and unemployment insurance, GAO recommended that the Department of Labor (DOL), in consultation with the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), immediately provide information to state unemployment agencies that specifically addresses PPP loans, and the risk of improper unemployment insurance payments. DOL issued guidance on August 12, 2020, that, among other things, clarified that individuals working full-time and being paid through PPP are not eligible for UI. To recoup economic impact payments totaling more than $1.6 billion sent to decedents, GAO recommended that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) consider cost-effective options for notifying ineligible recipients of economic impact payments how to return payments. IRS has taken steps to address this recommendation. According to a Treasury official, nearly 70 percent of the payments sent to decedents have been recovered. However, GAO was unable to verify that amount before finalizing work on this report. GAO is working with Treasury to determine the number of payments sent to decedents that have been recovered. Treasury was considering sending letters to request the return of remaining outstanding payments but has not moved forward with this effort because, according to Treasury, Congress is considering legislation that would clarify or change payment eligibility requirements. To reduce the potential for fraud and ensure program integrity, GAO recommended that SBA develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. SBA has begun developing oversight plans for PPP but has not yet finalized or implemented them. In addition, to improve the government’s response efforts, GAO suggested three matters for congressional consideration: GAO urged Congress to take legislative action to require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to work with relevant agencies and stakeholders, such as HHS, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and international organizations, to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan to ensure safeguards are in place to limit the spread of communicable disease threats from abroad, while also minimizing any unnecessary interference with travel and trade. In early July 2020, DOT collaborated with HHS and DHS to issue guidance to airports and airlines for implementing measures to mitigate the public health risks associated with COVID-19, but it has not developed a preparedness plan for future communicable disease threats. DOT has maintained that HHS and DHS should lead such planning efforts as they are responsible for communicable disease response and preparedness planning, respectively. In June 2020, HHS stated that it is not in a position to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan as it does not have primary jurisdiction over the entire aviation sector or the relevant transportation expertise. In May 2020, DHS stated that it had reviewed its existing plans for pandemic preparedness and response activities and determined it is not best situated to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan. Without such a plan, the U.S. will not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to future communicable disease events. GAO also urged Congress to amend the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration (SSA) to share its full death data with Treasury for data matching to help prevent payments to ineligible individuals. In June 2020, the Senate passed S.4104, referred to as the Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act. If enacted, the bill would allow SSA to share these data with Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service to avoid paying deceased individuals. Finally, GAO urged Congress to use GAO's Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) formula for any future changes to the FMAP—the statutory formula according to which the federal government matches states' spending for Medicaid services—during the current or any future economic downturn. Congress has taken no action thus far on this issue. GAO incorporated technical comments received the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and the Treasury; the Federal Reserve; Office of Management and Budget; and Internal Revenue Service. The Small Business Administration commented that GAO did not include information on actions taken and controls related to its loan forgiveness program or its plans for loan reviews. GAO plans to provide more information on these topics in its next CARES Act report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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