Implementation: Not sexy, but critical


It’s been 20 days since the president signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law — the massive $2.2 trillion aid package in response to the COVID-19 crisis. One of the biggest lessons any public policy advocate should take from the past 20 days is to not underestimate the importance of implementation. Once a bill is signed into law, do not expect it to be implemented as intended, without a watchful eye and fierce advocacy.

For example, one of the earliest implementation challenges surrounded the direct payments, also known as recovery rebates, of up to $1,200 per qualifying individual. Even though the CARES Act spelled out that the rebates could be sent automatically to recipients of Social Security benefits who don’t file taxes, the IRS’s initial public guidance was that these individuals would need to complete an online form in order to receive their rebate check. Not a realistic way to get money to those who need it most, given the sad realities of the digital divide. It took advocacy, and an intervention by the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, for the IRS to change course. While the ability exists to also provide automatic payments to recipients of Supplemental Security Income (known as disability benefits), as well as veterans benefits, the IRS still wanted to make them fill out that online form. They finally relented on SSI recipients yesterday, and now the advocacy continues to adjust their approach to veterans.

To be fair, the CARES Act is a massive bill, including a number of new programs that need to be created, such as a forgivable loan program for small businesses and nonprofits, and a new unemployment benefit for gig workers. But what we’re witnessing is also the product of a number of unnecessary actions and inactions that result from what my colleague Jeremy Paris describes as “what happens when people who disdain government, run government.“

Before the crisis even started, the administration’s slow pace of nominating candidates to fill agency and department positions, along with its firing of numerous officials, means that many of the departments and agencies now tasked with implementing critically needed programs lack the leadership to get the job done quickly and effectively. In the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development, together responsible for implementing vast portions of the CARES Act, approximately 30 percent of senior positions are currently vacant.  

In those agencies where leaders are in place, they have sometimes been at best tone-deaf, and all too often actively hostile, to the needs of people experiencing the pain of the economic crisis. For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which should be in hyperdrive right now to proactively protect consumers from foreclosure, eviction, and abuses by the financial industry, is instead simply reminding consumers they can file a complaint if they run into trouble. 

The Treasury Department and Small Business Administration have failed to take simple steps to ensure that minority-owned businesses, long underserved by traditional banks, would be able to access the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans. Adding Community Development Financial Institutions as qualified lenders would be an easy and effective way to address this, but they haven’t done it.

Worst of all might be the secretary of Labor, who has been slow to get assistance to states to shore up their heavily burdened agencies that process unemployment claims and has narrowly interpreted the CARES Act to the detriment of gig workers and others.

To change this, advocacy is needed at all levels — to raise awareness in the media about the consequences of getting implementation wrong, leveraging congressional allies to weigh in with the administration, and flooding agencies with comments and complaints. While this type of advocacy may not be as exciting or clear-cut as shaping a shiny new piece of legislation, it can determine whether a family struggling to pay the rent and keep food on the table is able to make ends meet.