The Best Way to Protect Infrastructure Spending from Waste and Fraud Is to Set Up an Oversight Body—Right Now
The new entity would need sufficient authority and resources to tackle the job.
The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the greenhouse gas reduction measures in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act provide overdue funding to modernize our roads and other infrastructure and advance efforts to moderate climate change. To achieve their stated objectives, both laws require complex interactions among federal, state and local governments and private sector partners to spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars in 50 different states. As we know too well from recent pandemic programs, legislation authorizing taxpayer funds inevitably attracts wrongdoers seeking to make a quick buck through bloated contracts, shoddy materials and outright fraud.
But history has also shown that fraud, waste and abuse in government programs can be dramatically reduced if the executive branch and agencies responsible for distributing taxpayer money put in place strong oversight mechanisms to protect against misspending. To be effective, however, those safeguards need to be established upfront, not after the fact.
The best way to erect the needed safeguards and ensure accountability in the new infrastructure and emission reduction programs is to create an oversight entity right now with sufficient authority and resources to tackle the job. The Inflation Reduction Act provides $25 million to the Office of Management and Budget to “oversee implementation” of the law and another $25 million to the Government Accountability Office to track “whether the economic, social and environmental impacts” of inflation reduction funds are equitable. But neither the Inflation Reduction Act nor the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes broader use of the oversight community to minimize fraud and oversee effective implementation of infrastructure and environmental goals.
Fortunately, the Biden administration can take steps on its own, benefiting from past oversight structures designed to curb waste, fraud and abuse. One example is the 2009 Recovery Board, a group of 11 agency inspectors general that effectively oversaw the federal response to the Great Recession and helped minimize misconduct. Another example is the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a collection of 21 IGs that currently tracks over $5 trillion in funding to combat problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, with additional funding, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee—which runs a website following a wealth of data on federal pandemic programs and spending, works with state auditors across the country, and operates an in-house data analytics center that scans millions of transactions for possible fraud—could be readily expanded to address the administration’s infrastructure and greenhouse gas reduction programs. That type of approach would help activate the entire oversight community to advance our infrastructure efforts.
The Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy earlier this year convened a group of experts to discuss the challenges of managing infrastructure investments via America’s fragmented federal-state system. The event, co-hosted by the Wayne Law Review, produced a set of recommendations for the kind of robust, fact-based oversight needed to ensure that our infrastructure and emission reduction laws meet their objectives.
Effective oversight requires clear statements on the problems to be solved and the metrics to be used to track success. Guidance needs to be sent to federal, state and local agencies and contractors on the kinds of data that must be collected and the public progress reports that must be filed to enable government monitors, outside watchdog groups, and congressional committees to spot problems and fashion solutions.
Right now, while the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act already enunciate a set of admirable goals in many areas of concern, they are missing requirements for metrics and data reports from federal and state agencies and contractors that will shed light on how the laws are working and how funds are being spent. For example, neither law currently requires states to submit regular, detailed reports on the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation projects they authorize. Without that data, the administration, Congress and the public will be left in the dark about whether specific infrastructure projects are advancing or impeding federal emission reduction goals.
Congress has left it up to the executive branch to impose the oversight mechanisms, metrics and data reporting requirements needed to ensure a successful renewal of America’s infrastructure and responsible emission reductions. Now is the time for the Biden administration to put into place the discipline, transparency and accountability measures critical to helping ensure that these important programs achieve what they set out to do.
Elise Bean is co-director of the Washington office of the Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy at Wayne State University Law School. She previously served for many years as staff director and chief counsel for Sen. Carl Levin on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Her views do not necessarily reflect the views of the university or law school.