Stimulus bill includes battery of accountability measures

By Elizabeth Newell Jochum

January 16, 2009

As Congress continues to debate the need for an economic stimulus package, lawmakers have included numerous accountability provisions in the legislation in an attempt to quell concern over how the money would be spent.

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill, touted by President-elect Barack Obama and introduced in the House on Thursday, would contain $275 billion in tax cuts and $550 billion in spending. The package is designed to create as many as 4 million jobs and jump-start the larger economy as the Troubled Asset Relief Program resuscitates the financial sector.

The stimulus spending would be conducted through "thoughtful and carefully targeted priority investments with unprecedented accountability measures built in," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The historic level of transparency, oversight and accountability will help guarantee taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and Americans can see the results of their investment, he said.

Accountability provisions include:

The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight applauded the accountability provisions on Thursday.

"POGO is pleased that, in the expressed spirit of openness of the new Congress and the new administration, the very first provisions listed in the bill concern 'unprecedented' and 'historic' measures to assure transparency and oversight so the taxpayer can easily see where the funds are going and why," the watchdog group stated.

The National Taxpayers Union, an organization that advocates lower taxes and smaller government, said the measures were a step in the right direction, but expressed concern that waste would persist. "It's hard to control the nature and final destination of expenditures once they've left the Treasury," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the group. "I agree with POGO that the oversight provisions will help, but bureaucrats at the federal and state levels have proved adept at finding ways around the rules."

POGO also noted that the legislation failed to include federal whistleblower protections.

"What this means is that while [the] bill sets a precedent for disclosure and transparency, the only people in the entire country left without protections will be federal employees," POGO stated.

Sepp said NTU and POGO are working together to ensure that all the elements of the 2007 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act are included in the stimulus. This is necessary because existing whistleblower protections have been undermined by judicial decisions, he said.

The legislation also attracted some congressional critics, despite the stringent accountability provisions. Detractors argued the focus should be on whether the spending is necessary and targeted, not on how the money will be accounted for after it is spent.

"This legislation appears to blanket government programs in spending with little thought toward real economic results, job creation, or respect for the taxpayer," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. "I'm scratching my head trying to determine how items like $50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts will create jobs or provide relief for families across the country."

The stimulus bill will be considered by the House Appropriations Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee next week. The Senate is expected to introduce its own version of the bill.

By Elizabeth Newell Jochum

January 16, 2009