April 10, 2009

Wasn't "Sheriff Joe" Biden Supposed To Watch Over The Porkulus?

If so, he makes Barney Fife look competent.

You might think that two high-ranking elected officials would have ways to learn such things, but the fact is, they don't. At the moment, the best tools Cantor and Thune have are Google and the Lexis-Nexis newspaper database.

"Right now we have very little access to information as to what the agencies are up to, prior to the money actually being spent," Cantor says. "Agencies will give you information in very broad terms, without many specifics."

That's where local news reports, dug up on the Internet, come in. When a city or county official learns that he will receive a pile of federal money, he usually tells the nearby newspaper or TV station. "Local news has been by far the best source of information so far," one GOP aide told me. "If you want to know how a local government is going to spend the money, Google around, Lexis-Nexis a bit."

Such searches led the Cantor-Thune group to the Binghamton, New York Press & News-Bulletin for a glimpse into how HUD is spending that $1.5 billion in the Homeless Prevention Fund. In early March, the paper reported that the small town of Union, New York would receive $578,661 from the Fund, even though "Union did not request the money and does not currently have homeless programs in place in the town to administer such funds."

An article in the Altoona Mirror reported that the small central Pennsylvania town was going to receive $819,000 from the Fund even though Altoona officials "may not have enough of a homelessness problem to use it." And a Google search turned up a report from WHP-TV in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania saying the city would receive $855,478 from the Fund, but does not know what to do with it.

The Cantor-Thune team is also keeping a close eye on a website, Federal Business Opportunities (FedBizOpps.gov) on which the government lists jobs that will be funded by the stimulus. This week they found an opportunity for art conservation for the Army. Like many others, it might be a perfectly legitimate task, but it has little or nothing to do with economic stimulus.

All that Googling leads to a question. Shouldn't Congress, which has to make critical decisions on how to spend the taxpayers' money, have a better way of knowing where that money is going? After all, the Obama administration promised that its new website, Recovery.gov, would detail everything taxpayers wanted to know about the stimulus expenditures.

It hasn't. "We have been pressing the administration from the get-go to put everything online so that we can achieve a level of transparency and come clean to the taxpayers," Cantor told me. "But that kind of transparency and accountability are just not in place." The Obama administration admits that Recovery.gov has not had a smooth start, but promises better performance in the future.

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