Yellen skips House small business hearing, defying legal requirement and angering both parties

Small Business

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks during the daily press briefing on May 7, 2021, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike for skipping an appearance before the House Small Business Committee required by law.

According to the $900 billion Covid-19 relief bill Congress passed in December, Yellen and Small Business Administrator Isabel Guzman are required to testify before both chambers’ committees on small business to help oversee the disbursement of aid.

But, as House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said Wednesday morning, Yellen declined to make herself available for the hearing.

“Unfortunately, Treasury Secretary Yellen has declined to appear before us in complete disregard for the law, which requires her to do so,” Velazquez said of the Treasury secretary. “While she and her team may believe their role in PPP and other small business Covid relief programs is dwindling as we move towards economic rebirth – they are sorely mistaken.”

Velazquez’s complaint was echoed by her Republican colleague, ranking member Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri.

“While I am glad we will be having a conversation with Small Business Administrator Guzman, I am deeply disappointed and concerned that Secretary Yellen is not with us today, as the appearance of the Treasury Secretary is required by law,” he said in prepared remarks.

Guzman appeared before the House committee on Wednesday.

Velazquez and fellow lawmakers had hoped to question Yellen given Treasury’s significant role in instituting the nearly $1 trillion Paycheck Protection Program, more directly managed by the Small Business Administration. Her failure to attend also comes in contrast to former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s several appearances before the body during President Donald Trump’s term.

Asked to explain why Yellen would not appear before the House committee, the Treasury Department offered CNBC this statement: “Secretary Yellen looks forward to continuing robust congressional engagement and will testify before Congress several times within the next month, including tomorrow. We will continue to work with Congress to coordinate the scheduling of as many hearings as possible.”

That Yellen — a longtime public servant and well liked by both parties as former Federal Reserve chair — would skirt a statutory obligation is striking. The bipartisan scolding for her absence is also notable given the Biden administration’s stated effort to work closely and foster relations with all members of Capitol Hill.

A person familiar with the tensions between Yellen and the House Small Business Committee said that lawmakers had initially accepted the Treasury Department’s offer to make Deputy Secretary Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo available as a substitute, but that the committee later reversed itself.

That change of heart may be due to the text of the December 2020 Covid-19 relief bill, which requires both the Treasury secretary and the administrator of the Small Business Administration to testify before the House and the Senate no later than 120 days after the enactment of the law.

The Treasury Department checked in with its legal counsel prior to Wednesday’s hearing over whether Yellen herself had to attend, a person familiar with the matter told CNBC.

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