Department Press Briefing – March 19, 2021

Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

WASHINGTON, D.C.

2:01 p.m. EDT

MS PORTER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s press briefing. I have two quick updates I’d like to share at the top, and then we will go into taking your questions.

Today, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale represented the United States at a meeting of the Coalition for the Sahel.

During his remarks, Under Secretary Hale announced then more than $80 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to the crisis in the Sahel region.

This lifesaving assistance is critical for the survival of nearly three million refugees and internally displaced people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. It will provide them with vital protections, economic opportunity, shelter, essential health care, emergency food assistance, safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene services. It will also help host communities across the Sahel.

The United States is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance both in the Sahel region and globally, and encourages other donors to contribute to these lifesaving efforts.

Next, we strongly condemn today’s drone attacks against Saudi Aramco facilities southeast of Riyadh.

We remain deeply concerned by the frequency of attacks on Saudi Arabia. We have seen that the Houthis claimed responsibility for these attacks and condemn the Houthis’ attempts to disrupt global energy supplies by targeting Saudi infrastructure. This behavior shows an utter lack of concern for safety of the civilian population either working or living nearby the sites.

International voices have called for an end to the attacks and an end to the conflict in Yemen. Last week, the United States joined the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy in condemning Houthi aggressive acts directed toward Saudi Arabia and within Yemen itself.

This week, the Gulf Cooperation Council called for an end to the attacks and a return to the negotiating table to resolve the conflict and bring a lasting peace the Yemeni people deserve. And yesterday, the Members of the UN Security Council also condemned the Houthi offensive on Marib and the cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia.

These attacks threaten peace efforts at a critical moment when the international community is showing an increasingly united front in resolving the conflict in Yemen.

We call on all parties to seriously commit to a ceasefire and engage in negotiations under UN auspices, in conjunction with U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking.

With that, I will wait a few minutes while our queue populates and start taking your questions.

Let’s go to the line of Casey O’Neil, please.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thanks so much for doing this again. Happy Friday. So just two quick questions for you, the first on Burma: Can you provide any update on the Department’s review, the interagency review that they’re undertaking – that you’re undertaking, excuse me, with regard to the Rohingya?

And then second question on Senator Coons’ trip to Ethiopia. I know I asked about it yesterday, but just wanted to follow up: Can you provide any additional information on State Department involvement in the trip, if any State Department officials are accompanying him and the like? Thanks.

MS PORTER: Thank you, Casey, and a Happy Friday to you as well. To answer your first question, Secretary Blinken has committed to reviewing whether the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Burma constitute any specific atrocity crimes and has also expressed deep concern over the Burmese military’s longstanding impunity for past and ongoing abuses. And I’ll also say that the State Department continues to review information related to the military’s abuses against all Burmese people, which includes the Rohingya, to inform and develop policies that help address these abuses and also prevent their future occurrences.

To your next question about the – Senator Coons going to Ethiopia, again, there – we’ll just say that, again, he is there at the request of President Biden, and as you know, they have a close friendship and relationship. And he entrusts him to convey our concerns about the humanitarian crisis ongoing in the Tigray region in the Horn of Africa.

Let’s please go to the line of Simon Lewis.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Alaska, if you’re able to talk about that. Obviously, there’s been a lot of reporting since yesterday about how sort of tense the initial encounter was. And there’s been discussions of – I think both sides have accused the other of breaking protocol in those initial exchanges. But I wonder if – does the State Department – based on the tone of that first meeting, does that give you any concern for the future of the relationship with China and the possibility of reaching some agreements or getting some achievables out of these meetings? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question, Simon, and just as a response to that, of course, as you know, Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan had their first meetings with Director Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, and of course, are in sessions this morning. And these were serious discussions. Again, I’ll just reiterate something that NSA Sullivan said. And of course, to your point about it, the – being contentious or not, again, we – he said we don’t see conflict, but of course, welcome stiff competition.

Again, this was a single meeting, and again, we know that sometimes these diplomatic presentations can be exaggerated or maybe even aimed at a domestic audience, but we’re not letting the theatrics from the other side stop us from doing what we were intending to do in Alaska, which is lay out our principles as well as our expectations and have these tough conversations early that we need to have with the PRC.

Let’s go to the line of Edward Keenan.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) of the Alaska meetings, the two Michaels, Kovrig and – the two Canadian Michaels who are being held as political prisoners in China, widely perceived as leverage against the United States, who are going to trial now as these meetings take place. Secretary Blinken and President Biden expressed their desire to see those two Michaels released when they met with the Canadian prime minister recently. I wonder to what extent those cases are up for discussion in Alaska right now, and if so, like, to what extent and how?

MS PORTER: Well, let me start off by saying that the United States continues to publicly call on the PRC to end the arbitrary and unacceptable detentions of the Canadians citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. And again, the United States is deeply concerned by the PRC’s decision to hold a closed-court hearing with the Canadian citizens. Obviously, no one from – no diplomat from Canada or the U.S. were involved in that. And we’re also deeply alarmed by a report that the PRC will commence the trial of Canadian citizen Michael Kovrig on March 22nd and we renew our call for PRC authorities to attend this trial.

We’ll always just reiterate that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada in calling for their immediate release, and we also continue to condemn their lack of minimum procedural protections during their two-year arbitrary detention.

Let’s go to the line of Rosalind Jordan.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question about North Korea. Earlier today, the First Vice Foreign Minister of the DPRK, Choe Son-hui – and I may be saying his name incorrectly – issued a statement rebuffing the U.S.’s efforts to recommence contact. And I’m going to read a couple of quick quotes from his lengthy statement: “We make it clear…we won’t give it,” meaning the U.S., “such opportunities ,” again, my words, “as in Singapore and Hanoi again.” And the final statement: “e will counter the U.S. on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill.” All of that to say that the U.S. needs to stop its hostile actions. In the DPRK’s views, it needs to stop spying, military actions, sanctions, the whole list, before Kim Jong-un will decide to engage again with the Biden administration. Is there a response from the administration to this rebuffing? Does the U.S. believe that this is simply a way of the government trying to build domestic political support for its untenable position, as the global community has suggested?

MS PORTER: Thank you for the question, Rosiland. We’ll – I’ll reiterate what we’ve said a few times this week in that the United States is conducting a thorough interagency review of the U.S. policy towards North Korea, and we’re also evaluating all the options available to address the increasing threat posed by North Korea as well as to its neighbors and, quite frankly, our international community. And we’re going to continue to lead a structured and detailed policy process that has an – integrated a diverse set of voices from the government as well as outside of the government, which includes think tanks and outside experts.

Let’s go to the line of Jeongeun Ji.

QUESTION: Hello.

MS PORTER: Hi.

QUESTION: Hi. I also wanted to ask about North Korea’s statement yesterday about Malaysia and the U.S. So North Korea said it will cut off diplomatic relations with Malaysia and the U.S. will pay a price because of the extradition of a North Korean to the U.S. So I wanted to see if you have any comments on this North Korea statement and the ongoing extradition process. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. When it comes to the extradition and just all of that tied to your question, I would have to refer you to the Department of Justice.

Let’s go to the line of Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, and good morning to you, Jalina. My question is regarding the security trainings for forces in Uganda and Nigeria. Can you speak a little bit about the status of your relationship now? There was a report this week in a press conference accusing Uganda of more than 400 abductions, arrests, and so on. So I was wondering, do you feel that the trainings that were taking place in Uganda and Nigeria to take out the LRA and Boko Haram, respectively – do you think that that is working? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. I won’t comment specifically on trainings that are happening in country, but what we will say when it comes to just overall safety and security in the region, specifically to Nigeria and Uganda, that we will continue to support safety and security when it comes to – especially when it comes to children and people who have been targeted for kidnappings. And we remain concerned, especially in Nigeria, when it comes to an uptick in their kidnappings, especially for ransom.

We’ll also say that the United States remains engaged to respond to all the security challenges in Africa, specifically when it comes to Nigeria and Uganda as well, and the State Department currently funds the majority of U.S. Government peace and security assistance in Africa and remains committed to these efforts. Diplomatic and security engagement with U.S. partners in Africa, quite frankly, advances our interests and values. Enhancing our alliances and partnerships in Africa through diplomatic development and security initiatives only enables us to better protect and serve interests – U.S. interests in Africa.

Let’s go to the line of Beatriz Pascual.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I wanted to go back to China. The talks in Alaska are set to conclude today, so I wanted to see if you could please provide us some details about what specific issues are on the table today or some detail about the issues that were discussed yesterday. And also, what specific outcome does the U.S. hope to achieve out of these dialogues? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. Again, we’ll reiterate that Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan are in Anchorage having serious discussions. And the goal of the United States delegation coming to Anchorage was to lay out our principles, interests, and values, and that we animate our engagement with Beijing.

Knowing that the exaggerated diplomatic presentations in front of the media are aimed at a domestic audience, we will continue to map out our planned agenda. And again, as I said earlier, that’s to make sure that we will still come from a position of strength and, again, lay out our common interests and principles from the United States.

And again, as Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan have already emphasized, America’s approach will be undergirded by confidence in our dealings with Beijing, even as we have the humility to know that we are a country that’s eternally striving to become a more perfect union regardless of any of our shortcomings and challenges we’ve had. We’re always open to meeting these challenges, even in an open forum where everyone’s watching globally, and we know we’ll come out better because of that.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thank you. On your Human Rights Report on South Korea, not North Korea, there’s one part talking about South Korea’s law abandoning leaflet-sending activities. Some NGOs and North Korean defectors in South Korea argued that they were providing outside information to North Korean people by sending leaflets. What’s your view on this? Do you support these kinds of efforts – maybe not just the leaflets, but overall activities and efforts providing outside information to North Korea?

Also, could you tell us about the new Human Rights Report on North Korea? What’s the State Department’s position when it comes to improving the situation in North Korea? Thank you.

MS PORTER: I thank you for your questions. So we actually have not yet rolled out our Human Rights Report. We’ll actually – hopefully that happens soon. And we won’t, again, get ahead of that, and you’ll have an update when that does come out. But we’ll say more broadly speaking, as a global policy, we advocate for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. When it comes to – with regards to the DPRK, we continue to campaign for the free flow of information into the DPRK.

We’ll take one final question from Hiba Nasr.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thanks for doing this, Jalina. I want to go back to Yemen. I heard your statement, your opening statement, and we had several statements calling for the Houthis to stop attacks against Saudi Arabia. What is the next move? What’s your next move? Are you considering designating the Houthis again? Are you waiting until you sit with the Iranians?

And I have one other question on Lebanon, if you don’t mind, please. People are expecting a total collapse, maybe within weeks, maybe within months. Is the U.S. prepared for such a scenario?

MS PORTER: Thank you for your questions. Again, we will always condemn the Houthis for their attacks on Saudi Arabia. And again, we will always call on them and all parties to commit to a serious ceasefire and engage in negotiations that are specifically UN auspices and also in conjunction with U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking.

I’ll just reiterate that President Biden made it one of his first foreign policy priorities to end the terrible war in Yemen, and in doing so, of course, appointing Special Envoy Lenderking. And he has been engaged with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in Saudi Arabia and regional states to put together elements to put together a nationwide ceasefire.

And when it comes to Lebanon, again, we remain deeply concerned about the developments in Lebanon and, of course, the apparent inaction of the country’s leadership that face multiple ongoing crises. Lebanon’s political leaders need to put aside their partisan brinkmanship and form a government that will quickly implement critical and long-needed reform, restore investor confidence, and as well rescue the country’s economy.

That concludes today’s briefing. Thank you again for joining me this Friday. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you next week.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:25 p.m.)

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    What GAO Found GAO's Disaster Resilience Framework serves as a guide for analysis of federal actions to facilitate and promote resilience to natural disasters and changes in the climate across many policy areas, including transportation. The framework is organized around three guiding principles—information, integration, and incentives—and a series of questions that can help identify opportunities to enhance federal efforts to promote disaster resilience. Specifically, the integration principle states that integrated analysis and planning can help decision makers take coherent and coordinated actions to promote resilience. For example, in October 2019, GAO reported that no federal agency, interagency collaborative effort, or other organizational arrangement has been established to implement a strategic approach to climate resilience investment that includes periodically identifying and prioritizing projects. Such an approach could supplement individual agency climate resilience efforts and help target federal resources toward high-priority projects. GAO recommended that Congress consider establishing a federal organizational arrangement to periodically identify and prioritize climate resilience projects for federal investment. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has taken steps to encourage states to enhance the climate resilience of federally funded roads by developing agency policy, providing technical assistance to states, and supporting climate resilience research funding, among other actions. In addition, as part of ongoing work on FHWA's federal-aid highway program, GAO identified options that could further enhance the climate resilience of federally funded roads, based on a literature review and interviews with knowledgeable stakeholders (see table). Some of these options are similar to recommendations made previously by GAO. Further, according to FHWA officials, some of these options would likely require additional congressional direction or authority to implement. Options to further enhance resilience of federally funded roads, as suggested by relevant literature and knowledgeable stakeholders Option Integrate climate resilience into Federal Highway Administration policy and guidance. Update design standards to account for climate change and resilience best practices. Provide authoritative, actionable, forward-looking climate information. Add climate resilience funding eligibility requirements, conditions, or criteria to formula grant programs. Expand the availability of discretionary funding for climate resilience improvements. Alter the Emergency Relief (ER) program by providing incentives for, or conditioning funding on, pre-disaster resilience actions. Expand the availability of ER funding for post-disaster climate resilience improvements. Establish additional climate resilience planning or project requirements. Link climate resilience actions or requirements to incentives or penalties. Condition eligibility, funding, or project approval on compliance with climate resilience policy and guidance. Source: GAO analysis of literature and interviews with knowledgeable stakeholders. | GAO-21-561T Why GAO Did This Study Since 2013, GAO has included Limiting the Federal Government's Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks in its High Risk List. In addition, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a changing climate threatens the performance of the U.S. transportation system across all modes, including roads. Congress authorized approximately $43 billion of fiscal year 2021 formula funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation's FHWA's federal-aid highway program, which primarily funds highway planning and construction. This testimony discusses (1) GAO's framework for identifying opportunities to enhance the climate resilience of transportation infrastructure; and (2) preliminary observations on actions taken and options to further enhance the climate resilience of federally funded roads. This work is based on GAO reports issued from 2014 through 2019, a review of literature, and interviews conducted with FHWA officials and knowledgeable stakeholders conducted as part of on-going work. GAO expects to issue a report on the results of its ongoing work in summer 2021.
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    In U.S GAO News
    U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has made progress testing and deploying facial recognition technology (FRT) at ports of entry to create entry-exit records for foreign nationals as part of its Biometric Entry-Exit Program. As of May 2020, CBP, in partnership with airlines, had deployed FRT to 27 airports to biometrically confirm travelers' identities as they depart the United States (air exit) and was in the early stages of assessing FRT at sea and land ports of entry. Facial Recognition Technology in Use at an Airport CBP has taken steps to incorporate some privacy principles in its program, such as publishing the legislative authorities used to implement its program, but has not consistently provided complete information in privacy notices or ensured notices were posted and visible to travelers. Ensuring that privacy notices contain complete information and are consistently available would help give travelers the opportunity to decline to participate, if appropriate. Further, CBP requires its commercial partners, such as airlines, to follow CBP's privacy requirements and can audit partners to assess compliance. However, as of May 2020, CBP had audited only one of its more than 20 airline partners and did not have a plan to ensure all partners are audited. Until CBP develops and implements an audit plan, it cannot ensure that traveler information is appropriately safeguarded. CBP has assessed the accuracy and performance of air exit FRT capabilities through operational testing. Testing found that air exit exceeded its accuracy goals—for example, identifying over 90 percent of travelers correctly—but did not meet a performance goal to capture 97 percent of traveler photos because airlines did not consistently photograph all travelers. A plan to improve the photo capture rate would help CBP better fulfill the program's mission of creating biometrically confirmed traveler departure records. Further, while CBP monitors air exit's performance, officials are not alerted when performance falls short of minimum requirements. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has conducted pilot tests to assess the feasibility of using FRT but, given the limited nature of these tests, it is too early to fully assess TSA's compliance with privacy protection principles. Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CBP is charged with the dual mission of facilitating legitimate travel and securing U.S. borders, and TSA is responsible for protecting the nation's transportation system. For both CBP and TSA, part of their inspection and screening responsibilities includes reviewing travel identification documents and verifying traveler identities. Beginning in 1996, a series of federal laws were enacted to develop and implement an entry-exit data system, which is to integrate biographic and, since 2004, biometric records for foreign nationals. This report addresses (1) the status of CBP's deployment of FRT, (2) the extent to which CBP has incorporated privacy protection principles, (3) the extent to which CBP has assessed the accuracy and performance of its FRT, and (4) the status of TSA's testing and deployment of FRT and how TSA has incorporated privacy protection principles. GAO conducted site visits to observe CBP's and TSA's use of FRT, which were selected to include all three travel environments—air, land, and sea; reviewed program documents; and interviewed DHS officials. GAO is making five recommendations to CBP to (1) ensure privacy notices are complete, (2) ensure notices are available at locations using FRT, (3) develop and implement a plan to audit its program partners for privacy compliance, (4) develop and implement a plan to capture required traveler photos at air exit, and (5) ensure it is alerted when air exit performance falls below established thresholds. DHS concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    In fiscal year 2019, debt held by the public reached 79 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The government's fiscal response to COVID-19 combined with the severe economic contraction from the pandemic will substantially increase federal debt. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that debt held by the public will reach 98 percent of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2020. The nation's fiscal challenges will require attention once the economy has substantially recovered and public health goals have been attained. GAO has previously reported that a long-term plan is needed to put the government on a sustainable fiscal path. Other countries have used well-designed fiscal rules and targets—which constrain fiscal policy by controlling factors like expenditures or revenue—to contain excessive deficits. For example, Germany's constitution places limits on its deficits. The U.S. federal government has previously enacted fiscal rules, such as those in the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, current fiscal rules have not effectively addressed the misalignment between spending and revenues over time. GAO identified key considerations to help Congress if it were to adopt new fiscal rules and targets, as part of a long-term plan for fiscal sustainability (see table). Key Considerations for Designing, Implementing, and Enforcing Fiscal Rules and Targets Setting clear goals and objectives can anchor a country's fiscal policy. Fiscal rules and targets can help ensure that spending and revenue decisions align with agreed-upon goals and objectives. The weight given to tradeoffs among simplicity, flexibility, and enforceability depends on the goals a country is trying to achieve with a fiscal rule. In addition, there are tradeoffs between the types and combinations of rules, and the time frames over which the rules apply. The degree to which fiscal rules and targets are binding, such as being supported through a country's constitution or nonbinding political agreements, can impact their permanence, as well as the extent to which ongoing political commitment is needed to uphold them. Integrating fiscal rules and targets into budget discussions can contribute to their ongoing use and provide for a built-in enforcement mechanism. The budget process can include reviews of fiscal rules and targets. Fiscal rules and targets with limited, well-defined exemptions, clear escape clauses for events such as national emergencies, and adjustments for the economic cycle can help a country address future crises. Institutions supporting fiscal rules and targets need clear roles and responsibilities for supporting their implementation and measuring their effectiveness. Independently analyzed data and assessments can help institutions monitor compliance with fiscal rules and targets. Having clear, transparent fiscal rules and targets that a government communicates to the public and that the public understands can contribute to a culture of fiscal transparency and promote fiscal sustainability for the country. Source: GAO analysis of literature review and interviews. | GAO-20-561 Our nation faces serious challenges at a time when the federal government is highly leveraged in debt by historical norms. The imbalance between revenue and spending built into current law and policy have placed the nation on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Fiscal rules and targets can be used to help frame and control the overall results of spending and revenue decisions that affect the debt. GAO was asked to review fiscal rules and targets. This report (1) assesses the extent to which the federal government has taken action to contribute to long-term fiscal sustainability through fiscal rules and targets, and (2) identifies key considerations for designing, implementing, and enforcing fiscal rules and targets in the U.S. GAO compared current and former U.S. fiscal rules to literature on the effective use of rules and targets; reviewed CBO reports and relevant laws; and interviewed experts. GAO conducted case studies of national fiscal rules in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Congress should consider establishing a long-term fiscal plan that includes fiscal rules and targets, such as a debt-to-GDP target, and weigh GAO's key considerations to ensure proper design, implementation, and enforcement of these rules and targets. The Department of the Treasury and other entities provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jeff Arkin, at (202) 512-6806 or arkinj@gao.gov.
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    Policies on the use of borrowed military personnel vary among military services. Borrowed military personnel refers to military personnel used for duties outside their assigned positions, such as security protection. DOD policy acknowledges that there may be instances in which military personnel can be used to appropriately satisfy a near-term demand but that DOD must be vigilant in ensuring that military personnel are not inappropriately utilized, particularly in a manner that may degrade readiness. Additionally, the Army and the Marine Corps have their own policies that describes how military personnel may be used on a temporary basis. DOD and the Army, Navy, and Air Force do not centrally track their use of borrowed military personnel, nor do they assess any impacts of that use on the readiness of units and personnel to accomplish their assigned missions. According to DOD and Army officials, the relatively limited use of borrowed military manpower, their limited impacts on readiness, and the existence of other readiness reporting mechanisms serve to obviate the need to collect and analyze this information centrally—especially given the resources that would be required to establish and maintain such a reporting process. The House Armed Services Committee has questioned whether DOD continues to divert servicemembers from their unit assignments to perform nonmilitary functions that could be performed by civilian employees. House Report 116-120, accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to assess the levels and impacts of borrowed military personnel. This report examines DOD's and the military services' policies on the use of borrowed military personnel, the tracking and reporting of their use of borrowed military personnel, and any impacts of that use on readiness. For more information, contact Cary Russell at (202)512-5431 or RussellC@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19: Brief Update on Initial Federal Response to the Pandemic
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    As of August 20, 2020, the U.S. had over 5.5 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19, and 158,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted between March and July 2020 to provide appropriations for the response to COVID-19. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to COVID-19. This second report examines federal spending on the COVID-19 response; indicators for monitoring public health and the economy; and the status of matters for congressional consideration and recommendations from GAO’s June 2020 report (GAO-20-625). GAO reviewed data through June 30, 2020 (the latest available) from USAspending.gov, a government website with data from government agencies. GAO also obtained, directly from the agencies, spending data, as of July 31, 2020, for the six largest spending areas, to the extent available. To develop the public health indicators, GAO reviewed research and federal guidance. To understand economic developments, GAO reviewed data from federal statistical agencies, the Federal Reserve, and Bloomberg Terminal, as well as economic research. To update the status of matters for congressional consideration and recommendations, GAO reviewed agency and congressional actions. In response to the national public health and economic threats caused by COVID-19, four relief laws making appropriations of about $2.6 trillion had been enacted as of July 31, 2020. Overall, federal obligations and expenditures government-wide of these COVID-19 relief funds totaled $1.5 trillion and $1.3 trillion, respectively, as of June 30, 2020. GAO also obtained preliminary data for six major spending areas as of July 31, 2020 (see table). COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures for Six Major Spending Areas, as of July 2020 Spending area Appropriationsa ($ 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. 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