Thursday, May 14, 2009

President Obama promised Americans they would be able to track “every dime” of the $787 billion stimulus package. He couldn’t find it all today if he had a magic wand.

Earl Devaney, chairman of the newly created Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board, said last week that, “If I could wave a magic wand, I would want to follow a dollar from cradle to grave.” Alas, no magic wand is available, so money can simply disappear in a puff of smoke.

Mr. Devaney testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 19 that, “If the government wants to ensure meaningful accountability, then we must have transparency at every level of transaction.” Such thorough transparency doesn’t exist because the current rules were not set up to be that precise.

The explanation for the disarray is simple. Federal and state agencies are receiving so much stimulus money so fast that bureaucrats are overwhelmed in their attempts to keep track of it all. It doesn’t help that it’s unclear what the reporting requirements are in the first place.

Gene L. Dodaro, acting comptroller general of the United States, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last month that states are “uncertain about their reporting responsibilities,” that there are doubts about “the capacity of reporting systems within their states,” and the states question whether their “systems will be capable of aggregating data” the way that the federal government wants it reported.

The federal agencies doling out this money aren’t much better at transparency themselves. George Mason University’s Mercatus Center rates federal agencies on such factors as the accessibility of government reports online, the lack of confusing jargon and whether program results correspond to their costs. According to the center’s May 2009 ranking, “Only 16 percent of appropriations in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed in February 2009, go to agencies whose reports scored ‘very good’ (48 or above [out of 60]) in fiscal year 2008.”

Government accountability is likely to deteriorate further as Mr. Obama’s spending increases flood agencies with more funds. Mr. Dodaro said it was his “expectation and hope” that more complete reporting will be required in the future. With almost a trillion dollars on the line, more than hope is needed to ensure that taxpayer money will be spent where it was promised.

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