As funds from the $787 billion stimulus bill are funneled into states' coffers, President Barack Obama met with state legislators today to drive home the message that he's been stumping to the public, Congress, governors, and mayors: that they, as well as he, have to make sure the funds are spent responsibly. He also made several new announcements, including measures his administration would take to limit the influence of lobbyists in stimulus spending.
"I can't stand here and promise you that not one single dollar will slip through the cracks," Obama told legislators at the White House meeting. "What I can promise you is that we will do everything in our power to prevent that from happening." At a key congressional hearing on stimulus oversight yesterday, legislators and head stimulus watchdog Earl Devaney acknowledged that the estimate for fraud in large government contracts is around 7 percent—an equivalent of $55 billion in the stimulus package. (Devaney's job, he said, was to minimize that amount.)
While Obama emphasized that all levels of government will be responsible for being accountable, he also unveiled a couple of new measures to make that easier. One was a promise to limit lobbyists' influence in the choice of funding projects. If any member of his administration meets with a lobbyist about a stimulus project, he said, information about that meeting will be posted online. Requests from lobbyists to talk to any member of his administration about projects, meanwhile, will have to come in writing. "Decisions about how Recovery Act dollars are spent will be based on the merits. They will not be made as a way of doing favors for lobbyists," Obama said.
Obama also issued guidelines to the various federal agencies receiving funding today that will outline what constitutes "acceptable use of taxpayer money."
His comments come as many watchdogs have pivoted from questioning the spending overall to wondering whether the funds, as promised, will be able to be spent both quickly and responsibly. And with critics poised to jump on any waste or fraud in the spending, the issue, for Obama, is becoming a major political test.