See-Through Stimulus

Is Capitol Hill writing a transparent recovery?

As the Senate rips pages out of the prospective stimulus bill, the world seems focused on where the money is going to go. Will there be more aid to homebuyers, as Republicans have proposed? Will more infrastructure funding be added? Will direct aid to states be cut?

All of these are excellent questions for the press to watch as the bill moves towards passage. But as soon as Obama signs it, the questions will be a bit different: Where, exactly, did the money go? And how well was it spent?

In some ways, we’ve heard the opening bars of this song before. The massive federal interventions in the banking system have been roundly criticized—by the press, by the public, and by the TARP program’s own oversight board—as being unnecessarily and undemocratically opaque. The stimulus package offers a second take, under an administration that has promised, and in key ways delivered, a new tune on transparency.

“I think there’s a lot of attention on the stimulus funding, because the TARP money was about the same amount of money,” says John Wonderlich, a senior policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, which supports CJR’s reporting on government transparency. “That controversy has maybe poisoned the well.”

And it’s causing some to think big on what a transparent stimulus might look like. Imagine a Web site where citizens could type in their address and see what the stimulus was funding on their block, in their city, or across their state. What if it listed the number jobs a project was intended to create or preserve? And what if, in due time, that data could be compared with outcomes: Were the jobs filled, were the roads built?

Both the House bill, which passed January 28, and the pending Senate bill have some measures that provide transparency and accountability for what likely will be a messy disbursement of hundreds of billions of dollars. Both bills envision a Web site where all projects will be listed, along with “relevant, economic, financial, grant, and contract information.” And both contain the slim but hopeful phrase that the data should be presented in “user-friendly visual presentations.”

Although differences in the bills will eventually have to be resolved in a conference committee, for now the House bill is getting higher marks from transparency advocates, mostly because it carries stronger, more specific requirements for online disclosure of the goals and costs of each funded project.

That might change if Senate Amendment 196, as introduced by Claire McCaskill of Missouri, is adopted. It requires far more detail on projects’ estimated job creation numbers and start-to-stop times, along with more information on subcontractors and contracts issued by state and local governments. It would also provide about $30 million of funding for constructing and maintaining a stimulus accountability website, and impose a thirty-day deadline for its creation.

While the placeholder site, established by the Obama administration, promises an “unprecedented” accountability effort, it remains to be seen what “user-friendly” means to the government, given that much of the language in the bills remains rather vague.

The thirty-plus groups in the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery have called on the government to ensure that the offical Web site include mapping and graphing functions, and to present the data so it can be downloaded for further analysis.

“We’d like to see some more stuff spelled out,” says Craig Jennings, a fiscal policy expert at OMB Watch, which is a member of the coalition. But so far Congress hasn’t done anything to forestall a more detailed site. “There’s nothing in the language that says this can’t be done,” Jennings adds.

In other words, the administration’s implementation of the transparency provisions will be key.

But the transparency community is interested in not only what data is released, but in how the data is released. If adequate spending data is released in an adaptable raw data format, the government’s presentation of the information may not be so important, because third party watchdogs can use and improve upon the information.

Jerry Brito, a regulatory and information expert at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, has already taken a stab at this sort of site. scraped data from a national mayoral organization’s list of 11,000 “shovel-ready” city improvement projects scattered across the country—projects that, the mayors claimed, were ready to absorb federal stimulus funding. The site allows users to provide project details from local sources, expanding on the brief capsule descriptions provided by the mayors. It also allows citizens to rank and debate the worthiness of any given project.

“The debate aspect is what is the most attractive to most people,” says Brito, who plans to include whatever federal data is made available.

While there’s no guarantee that any of the mayors’ projects will end up funded by the stimulus, the Web site shows one way how stimulus projects might be tracked and judged by the public.

“Transparency is a means to an end, and that end is accountability,” says Brito.

DISCLOSURE: The Sunlight Foundation provides financial support to the Columbia Journalism Review’s transparency coverage.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.