It’s been four months, and still President Obama has yet to criticize publicly a single project from the $787 billion economic stimulus spending package, despite his Feb. 20 pledge that if federal or state agencies tried to slip any bad spending through, he would “call them out.”
With 20,000 expenditures approved, the complaints about bum projects are piling up. Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, released a report last week identifying 100 projects he said were wasteful or silly. But the Obama administration has refused to accept any of his criticisms and is defending the spending, from bike paths to turtle bridges to $300 road signs advertising that stimulus money paid for the project.
“Despite the president’s promise that there would be unprecedented oversight, stimulus money is funding wasteful projects and is not producing the jobs Americans desperately need,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
The stimulus package was Mr. Obama’s first major accomplishment as president, and he promised taxpayers would be able to track the spending themselves as part of the monitoring process. But the Web site that is meant to track spending has gotten off to a slow start, and Mr. Obama himself has said that with the economy still faltering, the stimulus money isn’t going out quickly enough.
And criticism is mounting from groups that pushed for the spending but are worried they’re not getting what they see as their fair share. Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said federal stimulus funds have shortchanged the nation’s major metropolitan areas.
In a report, the mayors said their regions account for 73 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and 63 percent of the U.S. population, but are getting slightly less than 50 percent of transportation money in the stimulus package.
From the other side, some Republicans have said that if the economy really is turning around already - and the Obama administration has said it sees some positive signs - then the stimulus money should be frozen.
Anticipating objections, Mr. Obama was emphatic that he would keep a close eye on spending. To underscore the importance he attached to the matter, he assigned Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to watch over the money.
“If a federal agency proposes a project that will waste that money, I will not hesitate to call them out on it and put a stop to it,” the president said Feb. 20 when he signed the bill into law. “And I want everybody here to be on notice that if a local government does the same, I will call them out on it and use the full power of my office and our administration to stop it.”
Asked about the pledge, Elizabeth Oxhorn, the White House’s spokeswoman for the stimulus package, did not name any projects the administration has called out publicly.
Instead, she said, it has quietly rejected some ideas and eventually will tell the public what those projects were.
“We have stopped a number of projects - they are not among the 20,000 projects approved, because they were rejected,” she said. “We will be releasing a list of some of the projects that we have stopped, in our next quarterly report.”
It’s not clear what projects will be on the list, but for now, the White House is engaged in a fierce back-and-forth with Mr. Coburn, challenging his list of 100 wasteful projects.
Mr. Coburn released his report publicly Tuesday, though he made it available to reporters a day early. The White House wrote its own response report, challenging about one-third of Mr. Coburn’s criticisms and declaring the other projects “under review” - though it didn’t accept one of his 100 criticisms outright.
Among the projects in dispute is the refurbishment of a guardrail at a nearly dry man-made lake in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Mr. Coburn and fellow Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe wrote a letter June 4 questioning whether a new guardrail was a good expense for the Army Corps of Engineers.
After Mr. Coburn released his report, the White House said the Army Corps had canceled the project.
But in his own response to the administration’s response, Mr. Coburn claimed the Corps said that despite the White House’s assurances, the project will be included as an option in a contract to be released soon.
Another dispute involves repairs to a fitness center steam room at Laughlin Air Force Base. The White House said the project is not part of stimulus spending, but Mr. Coburn’s office said it was listed as an expenditure until Tuesday morning, the day the report was publicly released. It was posted as canceled at 9:37 a.m.
“I’m pleased the vice president’s office used a draft copy of our report as the basis for canceling projects, but I’m troubled by their decision to defend nearly 100 other projects the average taxpayer would find wasteful,” Mr. Coburn said.
His spokesman skewered the administration’s claim that it saw no waste in the senator’s list.
“The notion that no mistakes have been made by the vice president’s office is reminiscent of what some called the Bush administration’s hubris,” spokesman John Hart said. “The notion that the vice president’s vetting process has been perfect is laughable and an insult to taxpayers.”
He said the Coburn team already is at work on its next waste report.
Some of the disputes between Mr. Coburn and the White House are a matter of interpretation as to what constitutes waste. Mr. Coburn identified $3.5 million in bike-path spending in Milford, Mass., as bad spending, arguing the state has tens of millions of dollars in unspent federal grant money that could be used for building bike paths.
The White House, in its rebuttal, argued that Mr. Coburn seemed to have an antipathy toward alternatives to motor vehicles.
Mr. Coburn’s report also has been attacked by some mayors who are receiving money, including Republicans.
In one instance, Mr. Coburn criticized a $5 million project to install energy-efficient runway lights at San Diego’s airport. But San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said the project is worthwhile.
“These lights and signage will improve safety at Lindbergh Field by reducing the likelihood of accidents on the tarmac,” he said in a statement the White House e-mailed reporters. “Contrary to Mr. Coburn’s belief, this project is, in fact, an appropriate use of stimulus funds as it will put nearly 100 people to work during the installation process.”
Mr. Coburn also criticized $300 road signs he said were being erected to alert passers-by that a project was paid for by the stimulus. But the administration said this was normal: “Road project signage is both customary and an allowable use of funds.”