Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Yalda Hakim of “Impact with Yalda Hakim” on BBC World News

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Via Teleconference

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, welcome.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So good to be with you.

QUESTION:   You just joined President Biden at the virtual G7 meeting, and, of course, there’s been the Munich Security Conference.  What is America’s message to friends, allies, and adversaries?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think you heard the President say it:  America’s back.  It’s interesting.  He was – he last spoke at the Munich Security Conference two years ago in 2019 as a professor, and he said America would be back.  And now he’s President and America is back.  But what does that mean?  It means that we’re determined once again to engage in the world, to show up again, because in the absence of American engagement, in the absence of American leadership, then one of two things happens:  either some other country tries to take our place and probably does so in a way that doesn’t advance the common interests and values of the democratic world, or no one does and then you may well have a vacuum and chaos that fills it before anything good does.

But it’s also imperative that American engagement and American leadership be for the purpose of finding new ways to cooperate among countries, because every single one of the major challenges we face, Yalda, the ones that affect the lives of our citizens, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s this pandemic, whether it’s the spread of a dangerous weapon, not a single nation acting alone can deal with them effectively.  We have to find ways to work together.  The G7 today is a very strong manifestation of that – the world’s leading democratic economies coming together to tackle COVID-19, to deal with climate, to deal with other challenges to our democracy.

QUESTION:  Well, top of the agenda at the G7, Secretary, is the global vaccination effort.  President Biden has, of course, pledged $4 billion to COVAX.  But what about allocating actual vaccines as a matter of urgency?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, you’re right, we made a major contribution to COVAX, $4 billion with the initial 2 billion coming very, very quickly.  We’re determined to be a responsible international actor, an international leader on vaccinations.  And I think you’re going to see the G7 and other countries working closely together to make sure that not only are our own populations vaccinated but that the entire world is, because here’s the challenge we face:  Unless and until everyone in the world is vaccinated, then no one is really fully safe.  Because if the virus is out there and continuing to proliferate, it’s also going to be mutating.  And if it’s mutating, it’s going to come back and bite people everywhere.

So we have a strong incentive to try to work together to make sure that vaccines are getting out there as best we can everywhere, and that’s what some of these facilities are designed to do, whether it’s through the COVID program – through COVAX – through the work that we’ll be doing with the G7.

QUESTION:  Well, President Macron has said 5 percent urgently.  Is that something you are going to consider?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think Boris Johnson, who was leading the effort today to bring the G7 together, has said that we’ll look at all of these proposals to see how ultimately we can be effective in making sure that vaccines get out, get out to the world.  We’re focused, of course, on making sure in the United States that folks here are vaccinated.  We’ve made major progress in the last few weeks in doing that, but we still have a long ways to go.

QUESTION:  There is, of course, concern that Russia and China are filling that gap, and some are calling it a war of influence.  Is the COVID vaccination a feature of rivalry with Russia and China?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, we’re certainly seeing countries engage in so-called vaccine diplomacy.  Look, on one level, the single-most important thing for all of us as human beings is to make sure that vaccines are out there, that they’re safe, that they’re effective, that they’re distributed, and ultimately, shots wind up in arms and people are safe.  And of course, we’re in a bit of a race precisely because of these mutations.  As we see variants develop that may be somewhat more resistant to vaccines or at least vaccines may be less effective, it’s imperative that we get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we can so that we cut that off, we stop it.  But for sure, countries are engaging in (inaudible).

QUESTION: I suppose a bit of a race with China as well, given your extreme competition.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, with regard to China, one of the most important things going forward is that we get full transparency, full information sharing, a full understanding of how this virus emerged in the first place for purposes of making sure that we can prevent the next one from hitting us.

We’ve seen the devastating impact that COVID has had.  We don’t need this to be repeated.  And the way we prevent it from being repeated is to make sure we have a better overall global health security system in place to spot pandemics before they fully emerge and to take the necessary steps, and that requires a few things:  It requires countries to be transparent; it requires them to share information; it requires them to give access to international experts at the beginning of an outbreak – things that, unfortunately, we haven’t seen from China.

My hope is going forward that China becomes a full participant in these efforts to make sure that we can prevent the next pandemic even as we’re dealing with the current one.

QUESTION:  The President, as you say, has laid out a pretty forward-approaching message on both Russia and China.  But is the G7 united on this?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Oh, I think – look, I think we – I think we are.  And I think what I heard today in the G7 meeting was a tremendous sense of common purpose, a real sense of unity, and frankly, real pleasure that the United States was back and fully at the table.  And we have a lot of common challenges.  We have challenges internally to our own democracies that we have to contend with, and obviously, the United States is not immune to that.  But we also have challenges coming from outside our democracies that are targeting those democracies, and they’re coming in different ways, from China, from Russia.  And I think what I heard today was a strong desire and strong incentive to work together.

QUESTION:  Last week, the BBC World News was banned in China for our report on the sexual abuse of Uyghur women in the re-education camps.  You said that you plan on holding Beijing accountable for its abuses, but we’ve obviously heard that from other administrations.  What will that actually look like in practice in your State Department?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first with regard to the BBC, we very much condemn the action that China took.  And it is a striking thing to see China have one of the least open information spaces in the world; and yet, of course, it takes advantage of the fact that many of our countries have fully free and open information spaces, and China uses that to spread misinformation and propaganda.  That lack of reciprocity, I think, ultimately is unsustainable, and it requires countries coming together to stand up for a free and open information space.  And we’re looking at ways to do that more effectively.

But at the same time, the bottom line is that the biggest losers in all of this are the Chinese people.  They want free and open sharing of information.  That’s being denied to them by their own government.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, you’ve also said that you consider what’s happening to the Uyghurs as genocide.  Some are saying in light of this that there should be a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games.  Is this something that you’re considering?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Across all these issues we will be consulting very closely with our partners, with our fellow democracies, and of course, here at home with our Congress and other interested stakeholders.  We’ll come to that question at the appropriate time, but the main thing is across all of these issues it’s really important that we consult closely and we work closely together with likeminded countries and our partners.

QUESTION:  But the Olympic – the boycott of the Olympics is not off the table?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Again, that’s something we’ll come to at the right time in the right moment.  But the most important thing as we approach it and as we approach any other issue is that we’re doing it in close consultation with other countries and our partners.

QUESTION:  Let’s discuss Iran, Mr. Secretary.  You’ve been speaking to European foreign ministers on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.  Can you clarify what has been agreed with your European partners?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think what’s striking about the conversations with our European partners is that we’re once again on the same page; we’re not working at cross-purposes.  And that in and of itself is very important.  We share the same objectives.

President Biden has been clear for some time that if Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, the United States would do the same thing.  But then we would work with our partners both to lengthen and strengthen the agreement and to confront other issues, other challenges posed by Iran, including its destabilizing activities in the region, its ballistic missile program, that need to be addressed.

And what I found from my conversations with the European 3, as they’re called, is that we’re exactly on the same page.  We now have an invitation from the European Union to have an informal meeting of the so-called Joint Commission of the Iran nuclear agreement.  So the United States, the European partners, Russia, China, and Iran have all been invited, and we intend to be there.  That, if it happens, would be the opening steps on a diplomatic path to seeing if we can resolve this issue.  The —

QUESTION:  The New York Times is reporting that you’re taking limited steps to let up pressure on Iran to get them to the table.  How do you respond to criticism that these are upfront concessions?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There are no upfront concessions.  What we have is this:  We have a policy in recent years of so-called maximum pressure on Iran that has not produced results.  In fact, the problem has gotten worse.  Iran is now much closer to being able to produce on short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.  That so-called breakout time had been pushed past one year by the nuclear agreement.  It’s now down, based on published reports, to just a few months.  And meanwhile, Iran has been not standing down but acting up in the region with various destabilizing actions, attacks on our own forces in Iraq and elsewhere, on our partners.

And so the problem has gotten worse, not better.  And President Biden believes strongly that strong, principled diplomacy is the best way to try to deal with these issues, to put the nuclear problem back in the box and to push back on Iran in other areas.

QUESTION:  But I suppose the question is:  Why will Iran agree to more restrictions after you’ve given up your leverage?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Oh, I don’t – we haven’t given up our leverage at all.  As you know, all of the sanctions remain in place.  In fact, our leverage has now increased because we’re now, once again, on the same page with our European partners.  Because they very much disagreed with the United States pulling out of the nuclear agreement, they were expending most of their energy on trying to keep the agreement alive, not in exerting pressure on Iran for some of the other egregious actions that it takes in the region and beyond.  We’re now all in the same place and we’re united in purpose, and that’s a very powerful thing.

QUESTION:  You spoke to President Ghani this week and reiterated America’s commitment to the peace process.  The U.S. Treasury Department said last month that al-Qaida influence is growing in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban.  Isn’t this just a clear breach of the Doha agreement?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yalda, we’re in the midst of a very rigorous review of the policy toward Afghanistan, and in particular we needed to review carefully the agreements that had been reached between the United States and the Taliban and then the work that we had done with the Government of Afghanistan.  And all of that work is ongoing, but what we do know already and the initial conclusion we’ve come to is that it’s vitally important for us and others to press the parties to make good on the commitments that they’ve already made.  And when it comes to the Taliban, they’ve made clear commitments to disassociate themselves from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, not support them in any way, as well as to engage meaningfully —

QUESTION:  And I suppose – but the Treasury’s saying that they continue to allow al-Qaida and protect them to remain in the country.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, we’re taking a very hard look at that right now, and as I’ve said, I think the most effective thing and necessary thing that we can do now along with partners in the region, including neighbors, is to press the parties, starting with the Taliban, to make good on commitments that they’ve made, including the commitments they’ve made under the U.S.-Taliban agreement.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, we know that the world is a complex place, but often it’s a simple phrase that sums up a strategy, so whether that’s containment, the war on terror, or “America First.”  So I suppose my question is:  What is your foreign policy bumper sticker?  What are the words we should think of when it comes to American foreign policy under President Biden?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I don’t think there’s a simple bumper sticker.  To some extent, Yalda, the problems are too complex to be summarized or simplified in a slogan.  Having said that, look, I think the President believes in a few very fundamental principles.  And maybe you can’t confine them to a bumper sticker, but it is American engagement and American leadership, it is cooperation, and it is democracy at the foundation of our own country and the partnerships that we have around the world.  And when you put those things together – American engagement and leadership, trying to build stronger cooperation to tackle the issues that actually affect our people’s lives, and working closely with fellow democracies – I think you have the makings of an effective foreign policy.

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, I’m told I have to let you go, but I’m just going to squeeze in one question about Myanmar before I do that.  The administration has called on the military in Myanmar to immediately restore power to the democratically elected government.  The administration has also imposed sanctions, but the generals just don’t seem to be listening.  Has American influence in Myanmar waned to the point where no matter what you say or do, it’s unlikely to make a difference?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  What we saw in Myanmar was a tragic step back to what had been a historic democratic transition, and of course that was a transition that brought its own challenges, including the egregious treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar.  But the democratic transition itself was a very positive development in the world, and that’s been interrupted by the military coup.  That coup triggered sanctions from the United States, very targeted and focused on the perpetrators of the coup and companies that support them.  We’ve been working overtime to work with other countries to condemn the actions of the military, to call on it to restore power to the democratically elected government, to release political prisoners from jail, and certainly not to use violence against those standing up for their democratic rights.

And we’ll see where that goes, but pressure takes time to be felt, to be exerted, and my hope is that as more and more countries come together in making clear that this is not acceptable, we will see a change from the military.  But the hard reality is that democratic transition has been interrupted against the will of the people of Myanmar, and the international community needs to speak clearly with one voice that that’s not acceptable.

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, thank you so much for your time.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Great to be with you.  Thanks, Yalda.


Editors’ Note:  After the interview concluded, Secretary Blinken was asked to provide a comment on Princess Latifa and the Dubai royal family.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We take these reports very seriously.  We will closely monitor the situation and I have to tell you that across the board, with adversaries, competitors, but also with partners and allies alike, we take human rights very, very seriously.  The President has put it back at the heart of our foreign policy, and I think countries can expect us to follow through on that.

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    GAO is providing a framework for evaluating macroprudential policy—that is, activities designed to assess and mitigate risks to financial system stability. The framework presents six general components of macroprudential policy and 18 principles (see table), as well as related standards, for establishing the foundation of such policy and putting it into operation. Government actors—such as the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) and its member agencies—are responsible for meeting or contributing to framework principles as they relate to the actors' individual areas of macroprudential responsibility or authority. GAO refers to government actors with collective macroprudential policy responsibilities as the macroprudential entity. GAO Framework for Evaluating Macroprudential Policy Component Principles The macroprudential entity should: Mandate and scope Have a clear mandate Have a scope of responsibilities that extends across the financial system Establish measurable and specific intermediate objectives reflecting the full scope of its responsibilities Governance Have a governance structure promoting willingness to mitigate risks to financial stability in a timely manner Have authorities promoting ability to act consistent with mandate and scope Have transparency requirements promoting the effectiveness, legitimacy, and predictability of macroprudential policy Risk assessment Establish a risk-assessment program corresponding to the scope of the financial system and the entity’s intermediate objectives Identify and analyze potential sources of systemic risk Develop criteria to evaluate significance of risk Establish policies and procedures to conduct systematic risk assessments Risk mitigation Develop a range of macroprudential tools consistent with mandate and scope of responsibilities Develop policies and procedures for conducting risk-mitigation activities Evaluation Evaluate effectiveness of its efforts Document and communicate evaluation findings and promptly remediate issues Data and information Use quality data Develop useful information for decision-making Document information appropriately Establish policies and procedures for sharing data and information Source: GAO. | GAO 21 230SP The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act established FSOC to identify and respond to threats to financial stability in the United States. Other countries have created similar entities, and a growing body of research has developed around these macroprudential structures and approaches. This report presents a principles-based framework to serve as criteria for assessing the financial stability efforts of FSOC and its member agencies. It is intended as a resource for GAO and other auditors, FSOC and its member agencies, and Congress. It also may be useful to others, both domestically and internationally. In developing this framework, GAO reviewed literature on macroprudential policy, prior GAO reports, relevant laws and regulations, and international risk-management guidelines. GAO also interviewed or held discussion groups with representatives of FSOC and its member agencies; international financial stability entities, supreme audit institutions, and international organizations; public interest and industry groups; former regulators and civil servants; and academic and regulatory experts. For more information, contact Michael E. Clements at (202) 512-8678 or ClementsM@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19: Urgent Actions Needed to Better Ensure an Effective Federal Response
    In U.S GAO News
    The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and substantial damage to the global economy, stability, and security. According to federal data, the U.S. had an average of 116,000 new COVID-19 cases per day from November 1 through November 12, 2020. Between January 2020 and October 2020, at least 237,000 more deaths occurred from all causes, including COVID-19, than would normally be expected, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further, while the economy has improved since July 2020, many people remain unemployed, including both those temporarily laid off and those who have permanently lost their job (see figure). Also, more households have become seriously delinquent on mortgage payments during the pandemic. In addition, GAO’s review of academic studies suggests the pandemic will likely remain a significant obstacle to more robust economic activity. Number of Unemployed Workers Permanently Losing Jobs and on Temporary Layoff, January 2019 through October 2020 In response to the pandemic and its effects, Congress and the administration have taken a series of actions to protect the health and well-being of Americans. However, as the end of 2020 approaches, urgent actions are needed to help ensure an effective federal response on a range of public health and economic issues. Medical Supplies While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have made numerous efforts to mitigate supply shortages and expand the medical supply chain, shortages of certain supplies persist. In September 2020, GAO reported that ongoing constraints with the availability of certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies remain due to a supply chain with limited domestic production and high global demand. In October 2020, GAO surveyed public health and emergency management officials from all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories (hereafter states) and found the following: Testing supplies. Most states reported no shortages of swabs or transport media, but about one-third to one-half reported shortages in other types of testing supplies (see figure). State-Reported Testing Supply Shortages, as of October 2020   GAO surveyed officials in the 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and the five U.S. territories and received responses from 47 of the 56 locations, representing 41 states; Washington, D.C.; and all five territories. Not all states responded to every question. PPE. The majority of states that responded were mainly able to fulfill requests for supplies from organizations and entities within their states. However, availability constraints continue with certain PPE, such as nitrile gloves. Supplies for future vaccine needs. About one-third of states that responded stated that they were “greatly” or “completely” concerned about having sufficient vaccine-related supplies to administer COVID-19 vaccines. An additional 21 states indicated that they were moderately concerned. In September 2020, GAO recommended that HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should further develop and communicate to stakeholders plans outlining specific actions the federal government will take to help mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic; immediately document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions transitioning to HHS, including continued support from other federal partners, to ensure sufficient resources exist to sustain and make the necessary progress in stabilizing the supply chain; and devise interim solutions, such as systems and guidance and dissemination of best practices, to help states enhance their ability to track the status of supply requests and plan for supply needs for the remainder of the pandemic response. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security disagreed with these recommendations, noting, among other things, the work that they had done to manage the medical supply chain and increase supply availability. In November 2020, HHS repeated its disagreement with GAO’s recommendations and noted its efforts to meet the needs of states. In light of the surge in COVID-19 cases, along with reported shortages, including GAO’s nationwide survey findings, GAO underscores the critical imperative for HHS and FEMA to implement GAO’s September 2020 recommendations. Vaccines and Therapeutics In a recent GAO report (GAO-21-207), GAO found that there has been significant federal investment to accelerate vaccine and therapeutic development, such as through Operation Warp Speed, a partnership between the Department of Defense and HHS that aims to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. Separately, Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA), which allow for the emergency use of medical products without Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval or licensure provided certain statutory criteria are met, have also been used for therapeutics. As of November 9, 2020, FDA had made four therapeutics available to treat COVID-19 through EUAs. In that report, GAO recommended that FDA identify waysto uniformly discloseinformation from its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data when issuing EUAs for therapeutics and vaccines. By doing so, FDA could help improve the transparency of, and ensure public trust in, its EUA decisions. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but said it shared GAO’s goal of transparency. COVID-19 Testing Guidance HHS and its component agencies have taken several key actions to document a federal COVID-19 testing strategy and provide testing-related agency guidance. However, this guidance has not always been transparent, raising the risk of confusion and eroding trust in government. In particular, while it is expected that guidance will change as new information about the novel virus evolves, frequent changes to general CDC testing guidelines have not always been communicated with a scientific explanation. GAO recommends that HHS ensure that CDC clearly discloses the scientific rationale for any change to testing guidelines at the time the changeis made. HHS concurred with this recommendation. Types of COVID-19 Testing Approaches Nursing Home Care In September 2020, the Coronavirus Commission on Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes (established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in June 2020) made 27 recommendations to CMS on topics such as testing, PPE, and visitation. CMS released a response to the commission that broadly outlined the actions it has taken to date, but it has not fully addressed the commission’s recommendations or provided an implementation plan to track and report progress toward implementing them. While CMS is not obligated to implement all of the commission’s recommendations, the agency has not indicated any areas where it does not plan to take action. GAO recommends that CMS quickly develop a plan that further details how it intends to respond to and implement, as appropriate, the commission’s recommendations. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation and said it would refer to and act upon the commission’s recommendations, as appropriate. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) partners with state governments to provide nursing home care to more than 20,000 veterans in over 150 state veterans homes. In March 2020, VA instructed its contractor to stop in-person inspections due to concerns about COVID-19. As of September 2020, these inspections had not resumed, leaving veterans at risk of receiving poor quality care. Additionally, VA does not collect timely data on the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths occurring at each state veterans home, hindering its ability to monitor and take steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in these homes. GAO recommends that VA (1) develop a plan to resume inspections of state veterans homes, which may include using in-person, a mix of virtual and in-person, or fully virtual inspections, and (2) collect timely data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in each state veterans home. VA concurred with both recommendations. Economic Impact Payments The CARES Act included economic impact payments (EIP) for eligible individuals to address financial stress due to the pandemic. As of September 30, 2020, the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had disbursed over 165.8 million payments to individuals, totaling $274.7 billion. According to IRS data, more than 26 million non-filers—individuals who do not normally file a tax return and may be hard to reach—received a payment (see figure). However, everyone that was supposed to receive a payment was not reached. Starting in September 2020, IRS sent notices to nearly 9 million individuals who had not yet received an EIP. Number of Filers and Non-Filers Issued an Economic Impact Payment, as of September 30, 2020 Treasury and IRS officials did not plan to track and analyze the outcomes of their EIP notice mailing effort until 2021. The lack of timely analysis deprives Treasury and IRS of data they could use to assess the effectiveness of their notice strategy and redirect resources as needed to other outreach and communication efforts. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, should begin tracking and publicly reporting the number of individuals who were mailed an EIP notification letter and filed for and received an EIP, and use that information to inform ongoing outreach and communications efforts. Treasury agreed with this recommendation. Unemployment Insurance The CARES Act created three federally funded temporary programs for unemployment insurance (UI) that expanded benefit eligibility and enhanced benefits. In its weekly news releases, the Department of Labor (DOL) publishes the number of weeks of unemployment benefits claimed by individuals in each state during the period and reports the total count as the number of people claiming benefits nationwide. DOL officials told GAO that they have traditionally used this number as a proxy for the number of individuals claiming benefits because they were closely related. However, the number of claims has not been an accurate estimate of the number of individuals claiming benefits during the pandemic because of backlogs in processing a historic volume of claims, among other data issues. Without an accurate accounting of the number of individuals who are relying on these benefits in as close to real time as possible, policymakers may be challenged to respond to the crisis at hand. GAO recommends that DOL (1) revise its weekly news releases to clarify that in the current unemployment environment, the numbers it reports for weeks of unemployment claimed do not accurately estimate the number of unique individuals claiming benefits, and (2) pursue options to report the actual number of distinct individuals claiming benefits, such as by collecting these already available data from states. DOL agreed with the recommendation to revise its weekly news releases, and partially agreed with the recommendation to pursue options to report the actual number of distinct individuals claiming benefits. Tax Relief for Businesses To provide liquidity to businesses during the pandemic, the CARES Act included tax measures to help businesses receive cash refunds or other reductions to tax obligations. Some taxpayers need to file an amended income tax return to take advantage of these provisions; at the same time, IRS faces an increase in mail and paper processing delays due to the pandemic, which may delay the timely processing of this paperwork and issuance of these refunds. GAO recommends that IRS update its form instructions to include information on its electronic filing capability for tax year 2019. IRS agreed with this recommendation. Program Integrity Although the extent and significance of improper payments associated with COVID-19 relief funds have not yet been determined, the impact of these improper payments, including those that are the result of fraud, could be substantial. For example, numerous individuals are facing federal charges related to attempting to defraud the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), UI program, or other federal programs, and many more investigations are underway. To address the risk of improper payments due to fraud and other causes, GAO previously recommended the following: The Small Business Administration (SBA) should develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in the PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with Treasury, should issue timely guidance for auditing new and existing COVID-19-related programs, including Coronavirus Relief Fund payments, as soon as possible. Audits of entities that receive federal funds are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds.Also, Congress should amend the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration to share its full death data with Treasury for data matching to prevent payments to ineligible individuals. GAO maintains that implementing these recommendations fully is critically important in order to protect federal funds from improper payments resulting from fraud and other risks. In this report, GAO also identifies new concerns about the timely reporting of improper payments for COVID-19 programs. The COVID-19 relief laws appropriated over a trillion dollars that may be spent through newly established programs to fund response and recovery efforts, such as SBA’s PPP. However, unlike the supplemental appropriations acts that provided for disaster relief related to the 2017 hurricanes and California wildfires, the COVID-19 relief laws did not require agencies to deem programs receiving these relief funds that expend more than a threshold amount as "susceptible to significant improper payments." In addition, based on OMB guidance, improper payment estimates associated with new COVID-19 programs established in March 2020 may not be reported until November 2022, in some instances. GAO is making two recommendations: OMB should develop and issueguidance directingagencies to include COVID-19 relief funding with associated key risks, such as changes to existing program eligibility rules, as part of their improper payment estimation methodologies, especially for existing programs that received COVID-19 relief funding. SBA should expeditiously estimate improper payments and report estimates and error rates for PPP due to concerns about the possibility that improper payments, including those resulting from fraudulent activity, could be widespread. GAO is also suggesting that Congress consider, in any future legislation appropriating COVID-19 relief funds, designating all executive agency programs and activities making more than $100 million in payments from COVID-19 relief funds as “susceptible to significant improper payments.” Aviation Assistance and Preparedness GAO identified concerns about efforts to monitor CARES Act financial assistance to the aviation sector. Treasury’s Payroll Support Program (PSP) provides $32 billion in payroll support payments and loans to help the aviation industry retain its employees. While recipients have begun submitting required compliance reports, Treasury has not yet finalized a monitoring system to identify and respond to the risk of noncompliance with PSP agreement terms, potentially hindering its ability to detect program misuse in a timely manner. GAO is recommending that Treasury finish developing and implement acompliance monitoringplan that identifies and responds to risks in the PSP. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation, but committed to reviewing additional measures that may further enhance its compliance monitoring and ensure that PSP funds are used as intended. In June 2020, GAO suggested that Congress take legislative action to require the Secretary of Transportation to work with relevant agencies, such as HHS, the Department of Homeland Security, and other stakeholders, to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan to limit the spread of communicable diseasethreats and minimize traveland trade impacts. GAO originally made this recommendation to the Department of Transportation in December 2015. GAO urges Congress to take swift action to require such a plan, without which the U.S. will not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to ongoing and future communicable disease events. As of November 12, 2020, the U.S. had over 10.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 224,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of November 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of September 30, 2020, of the $2.6 trillion appropriated by these acts, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.8 trillion and expended $1.6 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials. GAO also sent a survey to public health and emergency management officials in the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the five U.S. territories regarding medical supplies. GAO is making 11 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. GAO is also raising one matter for congressional consideration. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202)512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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  • Social Security Disability: Information on Wait Times, Bankruptcies, and Deaths among Applicants Who Appealed Benefit Denials
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO found that most applicants for disability benefits who appealed the Social Security Administration's (SSA) initial disability determination from fiscal years 2008 through 2019 waited more than 1 year for a final decision on their claim. Median wait times reached 839 days for claims filed in fiscal year 2015, following an increase of applications during the Great Recession. Wait times have decreased since then as SSA made substantial progress in reducing the wait for a hearing before an administrative law judge prior to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Individuals who filed appeals of disability benefits decisions were older and had less education than the overall population of working-age adults. Among these disability applicants, wait times for a final decision did not significantly vary by age, sex, or education levels. GAO's analysis of available data from SSA and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) found that from fiscal years 2014 through 2019, about 48,000 individuals filed for bankruptcy while awaiting a final decision on their disability appeals. This represents about 1.3 percent of the approximately 3.6 million disability applicants who filed appeals during those years. The applicants who filed for bankruptcy while awaiting a disability appeals decision were disproportionately female, older, and had more than a high school education as compared to the total population of disability applicants who filed appeals. Bankruptcies among individuals who were awaiting decisions about disability appeals may have been unrelated to the applicant's claimed disability. GAO's analysis of SSA disability administrative data and death data found that of the approximately 9 million disability applicants who filed an appeal from fiscal year 2008 through 2019, 109,725 died prior to receiving a final decision on their appeal. This represents about 1.2 percent of the total number of disability applicants who filed an appeal during those years. The annual death rate of applicants awaiting a final disability decision has increased in recent years. From fiscal years 2011 through 2018, the annual death rate for applicants pursuing appeals increased from 0.52 percent to 0.72 percent. Applicants who filed their initial disability claim during years of peak wait times and appealed their initial decision died at a higher rate while awaiting a final decision than applicants who filed their initial claim in years with shorter wait times. Disability applicants awaiting a final decision about their appeal who were male died at higher rates than applicants who were female and those who were older died at higher rates than those who were younger. Death rates were largely similar across reported education levels. Deaths among individuals who were awaiting decisions about disability appeals may have been unrelated to the applicant's claimed disability. The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages two large disability benefit programs–Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). As of December 2019, these programs provided benefits to approximately 12.3 million adults living with disabilities and their eligible dependents. A disability applicant who is dissatisfied with SSA's initial disability determination can appeal the decision to multiple escalating levels of review. From fiscal years 2008 through 2019, SSA received approximately 9 million appeals of initial DI or SSI decisions. GAO has previously reported that applicants who appeal a benefits denial can potentially wait years to receive a final decision, during which time an applicant's health or financial situation could deteriorate. Given the heightened risk of worsening medical and financial conditions for disability applicants, GAO was asked to examine the incidence of such events while applicants await a final decision on their disability claim. This report examines the status of disability applicants while they awaited a final benefits decision including 1) their total wait times across all levels of disability appeals within SSA, 2) their incidence of bankruptcy, and 3) their incidence of death. For wait times, bankruptcies, and deaths, GAO also examined variations across certain demographic characteristics of applicants. GAO obtained administrative data from SSA for all adult disability applicants from fiscal years 2008 through 2019 who filed an appeal to their initial disability determination. GAO used these data to calculate wait times across appeals levels, rates of approvals and denials, and appeals caseloads, and examined changes in these three areas over time. To describe the incidence of bankruptcy among individuals awaiting a disability appeals decision, GAO matched SSA disability data to AOUSC bankruptcy data for fiscal years 2014 through 2019. To describe the incidence of death among individuals awaiting a disability appeals decision, GAO matched the disability data to SSA's Death Master File. For all of these analyses, GAO also examined variations across demographic characteristics of applicants, including age, sex, and reported education level. GAO also reviewed relevant policies, federal laws and regulations, and agency publications, and interviewed agency officials. For more information, contact Elizabeth Curda at (202) 512-7215 or CurdaE@gao.gov.
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    The Justice Department, in an announcement by Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric S. Dreiband, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) Katharine T. Sullivan, and U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota Erica H. MacDonald, unveiled a new National Response Center Initiative and offered the assistance to the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) to support law enforcement, and review, enhance and reform policies and practices to prevent the use of excessive force. The BJA Law Enforcement Training and Technical Assistance Response Center will be a national resource for all state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.
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  • Performance and Accountability Report Fiscal Year 2020
    In U.S GAO News
    Presented is GAO's Performance and Accountability Report for fiscal year 2020. In the spirit of the Government Performance and Results Act, this annual report informs the Congress and the American people about what we have achieved on their behalf. The financial information and the data measuring GAO's performance contained in this report are complete and reliable. This report describes GAO's performance measures, results, and accountability processes for fiscal year 2020. In assessing our performance, we compared actual results against targets and goals that were set in our annual performance plan and performance budget and were developed to help carry out our strategic plan. An overview of our annual measures and targets for 2020 is available here, along with links to a complete set of our strategic planning and performance and accountability reports. This report includes A Fiscal Year 2020 Performance and Financial Snapshot for the American Taxpayer, an introduction, four parts, and supplementary appendixes as follows: A Fiscal Year 2020 Performance and Financial Snapshot for the American Taxpayer This section provides an overview of GAO's performance and financial information for fiscal year 2020 and outlines GAO's near-term and future work priorities. Introduction This section includes the letter from the Comptroller General and a statement attesting to the completeness and reliability of the performance and financial data in this report and the effectiveness of our internal control over financial reporting. This section also includes a summary discussion of our mission, strategic planning process, and organizational structure, strategies we use to achieve our goals, and process for assessing our performance. Management's Discussion and Analysis This section discusses our agency-wide performance results and use of resources in fiscal year 2020. It also includes, among other things, information on our internal controls and the management challenges and external factors that affect our performance. Performance Information This section includes details on our performance results by strategic goal in fiscal year 2020 and the targets we are aiming for in fiscal year 2021. Financial Information This section includes details on our finances in fiscal year 2020, including a letter from our Chief Financial Officer, audited financial statements and notes, and the reports from our external auditor and Audit Advisory Committee. This section also includes an explanation of the information each of our financial statements conveys. Inspector General's View of GAO's Management Challenges This section includes our Inspector General's perspective on our agency's management challenges. Appendixes This section provides the report's abbreviations and describes how we ensure the completeness and reliability of the data for each of our performance measures. For more information, contact Timothy Bowling (202) 512-6100 or bowlingt@gao.gov.
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  • Cyber Diplomacy: State Should Use Data and Evidence to Justify Its Proposal for a New Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of State (State) did not demonstrate that it used data and evidence to develop its proposal for establishing a new Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies (CSET). In response to GAO requests for such data and evidence, State provided GAO with briefing slides outlining different options for the new bureau and an action memo, approved by the Secretary of State. The memo recommended that CSET focus on cyberspace security and the security aspects of emerging technologies and report to the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, while the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB) would continue to have responsibility for digital economy issues. However, State did not explain how it would address any challenges associated with the decision on CSET's organizational placement. For example, the memo did not address how State would coordinate internally on the cybersecurity aspects of digital economy policy issues with cyber diplomacy functions split between CSET and EB. The memo also did not specify how State would develop consolidated positions and set priorities for State's international cyberspace efforts, given the separation of these issues. Moreover, neither the briefing nor the action memo contained analyses supporting the additional details laid out in State's 2019 notification to Congress on CSET, including support for proposed resource allocations for the new bureau. Without developing data and evidence to support its proposal for the new bureau, State lacks assurance that its proposal will effectively set priorities and allocate appropriate resources for the bureau to achieve its intended goals. State needs to develop these areas further to better ensure the success of any new organizational arrangement. The United States and its allies are facing expanding foreign cyber threats as international trade, communication, and critical infrastructure become increasingly dependent on cyberspace. State leads U.S. government international efforts to advance the full range of U.S. interests in cyberspace. The Cyber Diplomacy Act of 2019 (H.R. 739, 116th Cong.), co-sponsored by 29 members of Congress, proposed the establishment of a new office within State that would have consolidated responsibility for digital economy and internet freedom issues, together with international cybersecurity issues. While the House Foreign Affairs Committee reported out this bill in March 2019, the full House of Representatives did not consider the bill prior to expiration of the 116th Congress. State subsequently notified Congress in June 2019 of its plan to establish CSET, with a narrower focus on cyberspace security and emerging technologies. On January 7, 2021, State announced that the Secretary had approved the creation of CSET and directed the department to move forward with establishing the bureau. However, as of the date of this report, State had not created CSET. GAO was asked to review State's efforts to advance U.S. interests in cyberspace. This report examines the extent to which State used data and evidence to develop and justify its proposal to establish CSET. GAO reviewed available documentation and interviewed State officials. To determine the extent to which State used data and evidence to develop and justify its proposal to establish CSET, GAO assessed State's documentation against a relevant key practice for agency reforms compiled in GAO's June 2018 report on government reorganization. The Secretary of State should ensure that State uses data and evidence to justify its current proposal, or any new proposal, to establish the Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies to enable the bureau to effectively set priorities and allocate resources to achieve its goals. While State disagreed with GAO's characterization of its use of data and evidence to develop its proposal for CSET, it agreed that reviewing such information to evaluate program effectiveness can be useful. State commented that it has provided GAO with appropriate material on its decision to establish CSET and has not experienced challenges in coordinating cyberspace security policy across the department while the CSET proposal has been in discussion. State concluded that this provides assurance that CSET will allow the new bureau to effectively set priorities and allocate resources. The documents State provided in response to GAO's requests, including a set of briefing slides and an action memo to the Secretary, did not sufficiently demonstrate that it used data and evidence in developing its proposal. In addition, State's comment that it has not experienced coordination challenges in recent years is not sufficient evidence that the potential for such challenges does not exist. Without evidence to support the creation of the new bureau, State lacks needed assurance that the bureau will effectively set priorities and allocate appropriate resources to achieve its intended goals. For more information, contact Brian M. Mazanec at (202) 512-5130 or MazanecB@gao.gov, or Nick Marinos at (202) 512-9342 or MarinosN@gao.gov.
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  • Engineer Pleads Guilty to More Than $10 Million of COVID-Relief Fraud
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    A Texas engineer pleaded guilty today for filing fraudulent bank loan applications seeking more than $10 million dollars in forgivable loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
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  • Defense Health Care: Implementation of Value-Based Initiatives in TRICARE
    In U.S GAO News
    The Defense Health Agency (DHA)—the agency within the Department of Defense (DOD) that administers DOD's health care program, TRICARE—has identified a number of value-based initiatives for potential implementation with civilian providers and hospitals under the TRICARE program. These initiatives aim to help DHA build a value-based health care delivery system, in which providers are rewarded for value of services provided instead of volume of services provided. For these initiatives, value is generally measured in terms of improved health outcomes, enhanced experience of care for the patient, and reduced health care costs over time. GAO found that DHA has identified 20 value-based initiatives, including a program that makes incentive payments for hospitals that meet certain quality metrics for maternity services and a program that promotes adherence to medication regimens by waiving co-payments, among others. According to DHA officials, the 20 initiatives include five that have been implemented (two complete, three underway); three that will be implemented in the future—two with anticipated 2020 start dates are currently on hold due to the department's need to focus on the response to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic and one that is expected to be implemented in January 2021; eight that are still under review, but no decisions have been made about whether and when they might be implemented; and four that were considered but will not be implemented. In fiscal year 2019, DOD offered health care services to approximately 9.6 million eligible beneficiaries worldwide through TRICARE, its regionally structured health care program. Beneficiaries may obtain health care services through DOD's direct care system of military hospitals and clinics or from its purchased care system of civilian providers. DOD contracts with private sector companies—referred to as managed care support contractors—to develop and maintain networks of civilian providers and perform other customer service functions for its purchased care system. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA 2017) required DOD to develop and implement value-based incentive initiatives in its TRICARE contracts. The NDAA 2017 also included a provision that required GAO to review these initiatives. This correspondence describes the initiatives DHA has developed and the status of each, as of June 2020. To do this work, GAO interviewed knowledgeable DHA officials and analyzed available documentation on each initiative, including decision papers, congressional reports, and Federal Register notices. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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  • Agile Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Agile Adoption and Implementation
    In U.S GAO News
    From September 28, 2020 through September 27, 2021, GAO is seeking input and feedback on this Exposure Draft from all interested parties. Please click on this link https://tell.gao.gov/agileguide to provide us with comment on the Guide. The U.S. Government Accountability Office is responsible for, among other things, assisting Congress in its oversight of the executive branch, including assessing federal agencies' management of information technology (IT) systems. The federal government annually spends more than $90 billion on IT. However, federal agencies face challenges in developing, implementing, and maintaining their IT investments. All too frequently, agency IT programs have incurred cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes. Accordingly, GAO has included management of IT acquisitions and operations on its High Risk List. Recognizing the severity related to government-wide management of IT, in 2014, the Congress passed and the President signed federal IT acquisition reform legislation commonly referred to as the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA. This legislation was enacted to improve agencies' acquisition of IT and enable Congress to monitor agencies' progress and hold them accountable for reducing duplication and achieving cost savings. Among its specific provisions is a requirement for Chief Information Officers (CIOs) at covered agencies to certify that certain IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development as defined in the Office of Management and Budget's capital planning guidance. One such framework for incremental development is Agile software development, which has been adopted by many federal agencies. The Agile Assessment Guide discusses best practices that can be used across the federal government for Agile adoption, execution, and program monitoring and control. Use of these best practices should enable government programs to better transition to and manage their Agile programs. GAO has developed this guide to serve multiple audiences: The primary audience for this guide is federal auditors. Specifically, the guide presents best practices that can be used to assess the extent to which an agency has adopted and implemented Agile methods. Organizations and programs that have already established policies and protocols for Agile adoption and execution can use this guide to evaluate their existing approach to Agile software development. Organizations and programs that are in the midst of adopting Agile software development practices and programs that are planning to adopt such practices can also use this guide to inform their transitions. For more information, contact Carol Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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  • Automated Technologies: DOT Should Take Steps to Ensure Its Workforce Has Skills Needed to Oversee Safety
    In U.S GAO News
    Stakeholders GAO interviewed said that federal oversight of automated technologies—such as those that control a function or task of a plane, train, or vehicle without human intervention—requires regulatory expertise as well as engineering, data analysis, and cybersecurity skills. Stakeholders also stated that as automated systems become more common across transportation modes, overseeing them will require understanding vehicle operating systems, software code, and the vast amounts of data produced by these systems to ensure their safety. Skills Needed to Oversee the Safety of Automated Technologies, according to Stakeholders The U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Departmental Office of Human Resources Management has identified most skills DOT needs to oversee automated technologies, but it has not fully assessed whether its workforce has these skills. Through its workforce planning efforts, DOT identified many of the skills cited by stakeholders as important for overseeing automated technologies—regulatory expertise, engineering, and data analysis. In 2016 and 2020, DOT surveyed staff in related positions and identified gaps in some of these skills, including regulatory expertise. However, DOT did not survey staff or assess skill gaps in data analysis or cybersecurity positions important to automated technology oversight. As a result, DOT lacks critical information needed to identify skill gaps and ensure key relevant staff are equipped to oversee the safety of these technologies now and in the future. DOT developed strategies to address some but not all gaps in skills needed to oversee automated technologies. For example, DOT implemented some recruiting strategies and established hiring goals as a means of closing gaps identified in the 2016 survey and plans to continue these efforts in light of the 2020 survey. However, DOT has not tracked the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps since the 2016 survey, nor has it implemented training strategies. Accordingly, some skill gaps related to overseeing the safety of automated technologies will likely persist in DOT's workforce. Automated technologies in planes, trains, and passenger vehicles are in use today and likely to become increasingly widespread. While these technologies hold promise, accidents involving them demonstrate potential safety challenges. DOT is responsible for overseeing the safety of all modes of transportation. This report addresses: (1) stakeholders' perspectives on the skills required to oversee automated technologies; (2) the extent to which DOT has identified and assessed the skills it needs to oversee these technologies; and (3) the extent to which DOT has developed strategies to address any gaps in skills. GAO reviewed relevant literature and DOT workforce planning documents, and interviewed DOT human capital officials, selected modal administrations, and stakeholders, including transportation associations and technology developers. GAO selected modal administrations based in part on the prevalence of automated technologies. GAO is making four recommendations, including that DOT: (1) assess skill gaps in key occupations involved in overseeing automated technologies and (2) regularly measure the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps. DOT concurred with three recommendations and partially concurred with one on measuring progress. GAO clarified this recommendation and believes its implementation is warranted. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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    Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired Inc. (IBI) has agreed to pay the United States $1,938,684.09 to resolve allegations that IBI violated the False Claims Act and the Anti-Kickback Act in connection with certain federal contracts set aside to employ blind workers, the Justice Department announced today. 
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  • COVID-19: Brief Update on Initial Federal Response to the Pandemic
    In U.S GAO News
    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. 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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  • Financial Assistance: Lessons Learned from CARES Act Loan Program for Aviation and Other Eligible Businesses
    In U.S GAO News
    The CARES Act authorized up to $46 billion for the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to make loans to aviation and other eligible businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 267 applications submitted to the loan program, 35 loans providing $21.9 billion in assistance were executed. Treasury officials do not expect to make any additional loans before Treasury's authority to make loans expires. Applications and Loans for CARES Act Loan Program for Aviation and Other Eligible Businesses, by Category in Statute Type of business Number of applications submitted Assistance sought/available (billions of dollars) Number of loans executed Assistance provided (billions of dollars) Passenger air carrier, repair station operator, and ticket agent 183 35 / 25 23 21.2 Cargo air carrier 10 0.8 / 4 1 0.002 National security business 74 2.6 / 17 11 0.7 Total 267 38.3 / 46 35 21.9 Source: GAO analysis of Department of the Treasury data | GAO-21-198 Note: Pub. L. No. 116-136, § 4003(b)(1)-(3). Participation in the loan program varied across business types due to timing of decisions and other factors, according to stakeholders. Treasury prioritized applications from the largest passenger air carriers and executed loans with seven of them for nearly $20.8 billion. For other applicants, including smaller passenger air carriers and ticket agents, the amount of time Treasury took to evaluate their applications and other challenges affected the number of loans executed, according to selected industry associations. Treasury's authority to make new loans under this program is set to expire in December 2020, and the loan program offers Congress and Treasury lessons for designing and implementing programs of this type in the future. For example: Multiple programs, or multiple paths within a program, may better accommodate businesses of varied types and sizes. It is difficult to implement a program quickly for a wide range of businesses. In addition, a loan program well suited to large, financially sophisticated applicants will not likely be well suited to smaller businesses. Setting and communicating clear program goals could better align lender and borrower expectations. Treasury viewed itself as a lender of last resort but did not state this view in published documents. This omission led to some applicants being surprised by parts of the process, such as when Treasury encouraged over a third of all applicants to apply to another loan program before continuing to pursue a loan from Treasury. Communicating clear timelines for action can also help align lender and borrower expectations. The lack of a published timeline resulted in frustration among some applicants when loans were not made more quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and substantial damage to the global economy, including the aviation sector. U.S. passenger air carriers have lost almost $20 billion and over 47,000 jobs in 2020, with losses forecast to continue into 2021. In March 2020, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance and health care response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including businesses in the aviation sector. The CARES Act contained a provision for GAO to review the loans provided under the Act. This report examines, among other things, eligible businesses' participation in the loan program and lessons learned from the program for Congress and Treasury. GAO reviewed Treasury documents and data on applications received and loans executed; interviewed Treasury officials on the design and implementation of the program; and interviewed eight industry associations that represent the range of businesses eligible for loans, eight passenger air carriers, and other selected applicants to gather their views on the program. GAO will continue to monitor and report on CARES Act assistance to the aviation industry. This oversight includes the loan program and another Treasury program—the Payroll Support Program—that provided assistance to certain aviation businesses to continue paying employee wages, salaries, and benefits. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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