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Taxpayers deserve to know where federal business aid went

American taxpayers should not be handing out hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to businesses without having at least some idea of where our money is going. That seems obvious.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congress last week that recipients of about $600 billion in coronavirus relief funds will not be disclosed publicly.

“We believe that that’s proprietary information and, in many cases for sole proprietors and small businesses, is confidential information,” Mnuchin told members of the U.S. Senate Small Business Committee.

That drew fire from many lawmakers, including both Republicans and Democrats.

Small business panel Chairman Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Congress will “ensure there is adequate transparency without compromising borrowers’ proprietary information.”

“Hiding recipients of federal funds is unacceptable and must end,” said U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.

We understand that demanding this kind of transparency puts the Treasury Department — and some of the businesses being assisted — in a tough position. Mnuchin is right that disclosing that a business required federal aid and how much was obtained could be very valuable to the firm’s competitors. Even the opposite, learning that a company was secure enough it did not have to seek help, could give competitors an advantage.

Still, the larger and more hastily implemented the federal program, the more likely it is there are improprieties. Six hundred billion dollars handed out in just a few weeks certainly would seem to fit the category. The public’s right to account for its collective spending ultimately trumps the privacy of businesses who accept federal aid.

So some transparency is essential. It is up to Congress and Mnuchen to work out some way of making that happen.

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