The Obama Administration promised that Recovery.gov would make the massive stimulus package transparent and highlight how well (or poorly) it's working. But Eric Umansky, senior editor at ProPublica, says it's hard to track the stimulus money because the numbers on the website just don't add up.
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This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. It’s been almost six months since President Obama signed into law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 which you may know affectionately as the stimulus bill. And over the past couple of weeks, Republicans opposing the Democrats’ health care reform proposals have been sticking to the talking point that, be careful because the stimulus bill sure didn't work.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: On the heels of the failed stimulus bill that added another
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We see that the stimulus isn't working, as your board rightly points out.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Unemployment stands at 9.5 percent and going higher. It’s clear that the stimulus package didn't work.
BOB GARFIELD: The White House responded by saying, yeah huh, the stimulus bill is too working. Vice President Joe Biden pled his case last Sunday in an Op Ed in The New York Times wherein he pointed to Recovery.gov, the White House’s uber transparent website advertised to track, catalog and map how all the money is being spent. But is Recovery.gov really as advertised? Does it even give the public, especially the reporting public, the day to day need to follow the stimulus dollar? Eric Umansky, a senior editor at ProPublica, a non profit investigative news organization that’s been covering the stimulus program, says, well, no.
ERIC UMANSKY: You’re talking about a massive bill, 700 billion dollars plus, and it is incredibly difficult to track. The government itself has found it difficult to track. With various agencies giving various numbers and various status reports, if it’s hard for the government to track, it’s even more of a task for us to track.
BOB GARFIELD: For example, if you ask the Department of Agriculture how much of the package from its appropriation has been spent, they say, well, X number of dollars, but that could mean they're committed to spending the money. It could mean they've actually written the check.
ERIC UMANSKY: Oh, absolutely. Each agency has its own definition for the status of where money is at in the process. Just to give you one example, you have money that has been appropriated, which is the first step. You have money that’s been spent, and that would seem easy enough. And then you have this sort of murky middle ground called "obligated." Obligated is, well, money that we plan on spending on a project and that we've committed to spending on a project, but we don't have the contracts yet. Well, one agency defines "obligated" in one way, another agency defines it in another way, and a third agency doesn't even use the same term. They use "available." And so we've been pushing Recovery.gov. We've been pushing officials at the federal level. I think they're getting some heat and I think they might be getting the message.
BOB GARFIELD: At various points you have tried to add up the different entries on Recovery.gov to ascertain how much of the money has actually gotten into the economy, and nothing added up in any way, shape or form.
ERIC UMANSKY: No, you have Recovery.gov numbers. And they are really making a great effort at this stuff and they've committed an enormous amount of resources so far as we can tell, to it, so it’s no real criticism of them, except that the numbers don't add up in the end because Recovery.gov is getting their numbers from agencies which in turn aren't sure about what the numbers are to begin with. And you find yourself in this circular logic of just trying to figure out a consistent number and spending hours [LAUGHS] and days at it. BOB GARFIELD: These aren't academic questions. The whole point of the stimulus package was to get money out in the economy. Do you have any way of evaluating now whether the cash is actually flowing?
ERIC UMANSKY: Yeah, in fact, this is obviously something we've been spending an enormous amount of time on. And one thing that we are doing and publishing on our site right now is what we call the Stimulus Progress Bar, and that shows how much money is getting out the door. We've surveyed all the federal agencies and been talking with the folks at Recovery.gov and tried to put it all into just one very simple bar chart that shows how much money is getting out the door. And the answer to how much is getting out the door is, unfortunately, so far not a whole lot.
BOB GARFIELD: Just a trickle.
ERIC UMANSKY: Yeah. You know, you’re looking at a huge backdrop of need. Against the need, there’s not enough there yet.
BOB GARFIELD: When the government decides to pour, you know, close to a trillion dollars into the economy, reporters, I think by nature, by instinct, by experience and training, look for the most preposterous pork barrel projects — you know, 18 million dollars going to fund mascara research or some such thing. Are you looking for that kind of stuff or are you just looking at the larger question as to whether the money’s being spent, period?
ERIC UMANSKY: You know, we're looking at both. And this has honestly involved a lot of soul searching on our part and thinking about this stuff very carefully, because what are the goals of the stimulus? Create jobs by frankly spending money quickly but also spending money well. But if you just look for these outliers that you’re talking about, if you just look for waste — not that those things aren't important to look at, but if you just look for those things, you risk missing the forest for the trees. In fact, you risk burning down the forest in the process. We've been very careful to look at potential waste but also, frankly, to prioritize the notion of, well, how much money is getting out the door? And that’s why we're doing things, like I mentioned, like this Progress Bar.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Eric, as always, thanks a lot.
ERIC UMANSKY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Umansky is a senior editor at ProPublica, a non profit investigative journalism organization that occasionally does reporting projects with WNYC Radio, the station where On the Media is produced.
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