WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday defended the Trump administration's economic response to the coronavirus pandemic, facing pointed questions from one Democratic senator who said workers' lives were being put at risk.
During a Senate Banking Committee hearing, conducted by videoconference, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, pressed Mnuchin on the White House's push to rapidly reopen parts of the economy even as health-care advisers have urged more caution.
"How many workers should give their lives to increase our [gross domestic product] by half a percent?" Brown asked Mnuchin.
"No workers should give their lives to do that, Mr. Senator, and I think your characterization is unfair," Mnuchin responded.
President Donald Trump has said in the past that it is possible the push to reopen parts of the economy quickly could lead to more deaths, but his advisers have said numerous precautions are being taken to prevent problems.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell also testified at the hearing. He and Mnuchin were asked about whether the government was acting quickly enough to try to arrest the economic downturn. Powell also told lawmakers that more spending could help prevent the recession from deepening.
The hearing marked the first time two of the main architects of the government's economic response testified together before a congressional panel, and it came as policymakers are increasingly divided about how to address the pandemic's economic fallout. Powell has called for Congress to approve more programs to ensure economic growth, while Mnuchin said Tuesday that he is working to erect programs that were authorized two months ago.
Mnuchin also warned that there could be severe economic trauma if policymakers do not act swiftly to reopen businesses, reflecting the urgency that has taken hold at the White House in recent weeks.
"There is the risk of permanent damage," Mnuchin said at the hearing. He stressed the need for the economic reopening to be done safely and said the economy would continue to weaken, at least in the short term.
"I think the jobs numbers will be worse before they get better," Mnuchin said.
A number of Democrats at the hearing attacked the White House's response. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Mnuchin should be more forthcoming about where all the stimulus money is being spent, telling him, "We need more transparency." Mnuchin responded by saying there had been "unprecedented transparency" so far, but Tester said that was not the case.
Brown repeatedly asked Mnuchin and Powell whether it was "fair" that essential workers putting their lives on the line at work while being among the lowest-paid in the economy. Neither Mnuchin nor Powell would specifically say whether that was fair.
The very terms of the hearing came under dispute as Mnuchin said he had been prepared to testify in person. Brown devoted part of his opening statement to railing against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for bringing the Senate back into session, which Brown said was putting Senate workers at risk.
The hearing was to focus on the nearly $3 trillion Congress has approved to respond to the coronavirus crisis, including a $500 billion fund managed by the Treasury and the Fed. Lawmakers of both major parties pressed Mnuchin and Powell to move faster on hundreds of billions of dollars in lending to businesses, cities, states and others.
"The Cares Act is the biggest rescue package in the history of Congress, and we need to make sure the dollars and program quickly find their mark," Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said at the outset of the hearing.
In his own opening statement, Mnuchin touted his work with Congress "to get relief into the hands of hardworking Americans and businesses as quickly as possible. While these are unprecedented and difficult times, these programs are making a positive impact on people."
Powell discussed the Fed's role in backstopping hundreds of billions of dollars in loans for businesses shoring up other parts of the economy. A report by the Congressional Oversight Commission on Monday found that a small portion of a $500 billion Treasury fund created by the Cares Act has been committed.
Congress' $2 trillion Cares Act, passed in late March, mandates quarterly testimony from Powell and Mnuchin on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers of both major parties have questioned why the Fed has yet to launch its Main Street Lending Facility, aimed at helping businesses that are too large to qualify for a separate small-business program — and why the central bank recently altered the terms of that program to aid companies with up to 15,000 employees, a move some Democrats say mainly benefits struggling oil and gas firms.
Crapo questioned Mnuchin and Powell about a municipal lending fund and what types of cities could qualify for it. Congress allocated $150 billion for cities and states under the Cares Act, but governors and Democratic lawmakers have been pushing for more assistance. The Treasury and the Fed set up a municipal lending facility within the $500 billion Treasury fund, but it has yet to send out any money.
Powell said the agency was looking at ways to make it work.
House Democrats last week passed a bill allocating another $3 trillion in coronavirus relief, but Senate Republicans and the White House rejected it. Senate Republicans and administration officials say they want to pause and see how the money already approved is working before agreeing to any more. Some have suggested that no more federal spending will be necessary at all, as the Trump administration makes bullish predictions about economic growth.
Democrats have pointed to comments last week from Powell suggesting that spending more spending might be necessary and worthwhile.
Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said Powell's comments had been "mischaracterized" as calling on Congress to pass a new spending bill, saying the Federal Reserve had been more nuanced and had acknowledged the costs of new spending. Powell did not respond to that interpretation of his remarks.
"I think you could make a pretty strong case before we rush out and do another spending bill we let some of this stuff go to work," Toomey said.