On Feb. 14, with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Congress shoveled $787 billion of stimulus money out the door. Now they're using Google to find out where it went.
During the stimulus debate, the bill's supporters stressed that it included strong oversight safeguards. But audits and reports are months, if not years, away. Oversight will be after the fact; right now, with the money actually beginning to flow, members of Congress have little or no idea where it is going. What, for example, is the Department of Housing and Urban Development doing with the $1.5 billion Congress approved for a new program called the Homeless Prevention Fund? Lawmakers don't know.
If they wanted, majority Democrats could demand real-time details from the Obama administration. But minority Republicans have no power to compel the administration to do anything. So Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican whip in the House, and GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota have set up a working group to track spending as best they can.
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, N.Y., Press & Sun-Bulletin for a glimpse into how the Department of Housing and Urban Development is spending that $1.5 billion in the Homeless Prevention Fund. In early March, the paper reported that the small town of Union, N.Y., 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 (Pa.) 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, Pa., 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 Web site, 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 Web site, 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.
So for now, the Googling goes on. Even though Cantor and Thune didn't vote for the stimulus bill, Congress approved it, and now they would like to know where the $787 billion is actually going. It's not an easy job.