In Stimulus, Can Lawmakers Spend Billions Without Wasting Billions?

Crafting a huge stimulus won't be easy, but adding real accountability could be the biggest challenge

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The goals of the $825 billion (and growing) stimulus package being drafted by Congress are as sweeping as its price tag: create or save 3 million jobs, modernize infrastructure, and thrust the economy out of recession.

Even more ambitious, perhaps, are promises of House Democrats that those goals will be achieved with "historic" and "unprecedented" transparency and accountability. The effort, which includes a new oversight board, a website on spending, and a ban on earmarks, echoes President Barack Obama's promises of transparency in the stimulus.

"We're starting from so little transparency, it's not hard to be unprecedented," says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. "The next step is to make sure that it's actually meaningful." In such a massive package, however, it won't be easy, particularly because the stimulus bill is being crafted to produce as much immediate spending as possible in an effort to jump-start the economy.

One early snafu came with a draft provision on protection for whistle-blowers. Initial press releases from the House Committee on Appropriations and from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office said the bill would protect federal and state whistle-blowers. In fact, the guarantee as written would apply only at the state and local levels. The discrepancy—chalked up as a typo—frustrated some groups. By allowing the complainant to go to court against the employer, the legislation would have been the strongest protection yet for federal employees.

Another point of early controversy is the oversight system. The draft calls for an "Accountability Board" to review spending, while an "Independent Advisory Panel" would make recommendations to the board. That's little more than a publicity stunt, says Grover Norquist, president of the conservative watchdog group Americans for Tax Reform. "We don't need a committee to tell us that a $600 hammer made no sense."

Other groups worry about the independence of such panels given that President Obama would be appointing their members, something Brian calls "a problem." She compares the Accountability Board to the Financial Stability Oversight Board included in the $700 billion bailout, or Troubled Asset Relief Program, passed in October. TARP's oversight board, made up of federal officials and headed by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, was accused of failing to make banks accountable for how they spent the first tranche of $350 billion.

As lawmakers wrangle over the bill and the Senate prepares its own version, many government watchdog groups are looking for more specifics. For example, although the proposed spending website could help improve transparency, the bill calls for it to be updated only "regularly" or "as necessary." Similarly, it's unclear if the full text of contracts will be posted online or if information about subcontracts—the way most of the money will probably be funneled—will be included.

If the final bill does manage to boost accountability, lawmakers could redeem themselves in the eyes of Americans frustrated by the lack of oversight on TARP funding, analysts say. "But it's all in the execution," says Bill Buzenberg, who runs the Center for Public Integrity. A recent poll asking Americans about a national effort to build up infrastructure found that twice as many said that accountability is their highest priority, compared with creating American jobs.