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A New Day for Accountability in Stimulus Plan

Amid the Democrats’ boostering and the Republicans’ assaults on the final stimulus package, almost no one is focusing on a key part of the bill that will be critical to making it work: accountability for how that $787 billion is spent. In fact, a look at the final bill reveals that to a large extent, the Democrats who drafted it and the Obama administration that pushed for it learned important lessons from the billions of dollars wasted by the Bush administration in Iraq. Some important provisions, however, were lost in the negotiations process.

The lead story in The New York Times Sunday serves as a sobering reminder of what can happen when government tries to spend a lot of money quickly, but doesn’t bother to keep track of where it’s going. In Iraq, no-bid contracts and nonexistent oversight led not only to brand-new trucks abandoned on roadsides and $45 cases of soda, but also to tens of thousands of dollars in cash delivered in pizza boxes and distributed as payoffs in paper sacks at drop-off spots around the Green Zone, according to a widening government investigation detailed by The Times.

The stimulus package goes a long way to keep that particular history from repeating itself.

For example, the bill creates a new board to oversee and coordinate federal spending and prevent “waste, fraud and abuse.” Any agency’s inspector general can review concerns about spending under the program, and the General Accountability Office (GAO) will conduct regular and reports on how the money is being spent. All this, plus a summary of the contracts themselves (the House bill had promised to put the entire contracts online—this was a concession to government contractors) are required to be posted online at www.recovery.gov.

The bill also requires the government to put most contracts up for competitive bidding — a sharp departure from business-as-usual under the Bush administration — and if for some reason the contract is not competitive, the government must publish a justification for the exception.

But it’s disappointing that Congress scaled back its pledge to post the final contracts. Government contractors’ lobbyists had pushed hard against publishing the contracts, claiming they were worried about proprietary information (which the draft bill would have allowed them to redact) and in the end, they won out. It’s not clear what a “summary” of the contracts means and how much detail they’ll include. For example, will we know if KBR is again charging $100 to wash a bag of laundry?

The nonpartisan watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense has been cautiously optimistic about the stimulus bill, while applauding the tracking Website, the oversight panel, and the nearly $200 million to be provided for inspectors general and $25 million for the Government Accountability Office — which provide critical independent oversight.

But there are also some concerns. In addition to the unpublished contracts, some of the important accountability measures proposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has been a strong proponent for accountability in this bill, were not adopted. (McCaskill proposed and won important new whistleblower protections for employees of government contractors that had been left out of earlier versions of the bill.)

As Clint Hendler of Columbia Journalism Review reports, the oversight portion of the final bill (pdf) cut McCaskill’s proposed requirement for transparency in local and state contracts funded by stimulus money. McCaskill had been trying to get those contracts tracked on the recovery.gov website as well; instead, only federal funds will be tracked.

That’s too bad. But as Hendler also points out, the bill creates a floor, not a ceiling, for accountability of stimulus spending.

President Obama, meanwhile, has touted recovery.gov as a site that will “report on where the money is going in your community, how it’s being spent, how many jobs are being created so that all of you can be the eyes and ears. … The key is that we’re going to have strong oversight and strong transparency to make sure this money isn’t being wasted.”

It’s up to his administration now to make sure that happens.

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