Nov. 13, 2009 -- Fuzzy math or flagrant fudgery?
Following a series of reports across the country of what look like over-the-top over-estimates of jobs created or saved as a result of President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package, a senior Republican lawmaker has challenged the administration's accounting.
Ahead of a congressional hearing on the stimulus spending issue slated for next week, House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has drafted a letter to Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which monitors stimulus spending. In his letter, Issa expresses concern that "grossly inaccurate" information has been fed to the public. Issa's letter questions whether the board's claim that an estimated 640,329 jobs were created or saved as a result of the massive spending measure is accurate.
According to a draft version of the Issa letter obtained by ABCNews.com, and which is not expected to be sent until Monday, Issa drops a stiff challenge on Devaney's doorstep. First, he asks whether he can certify that the number of jobs reported on the stimulus oversight board's Web site as created or saved is accurate and auditable, and whether Devaney, if he can't certify the numbers, would be willing to add a disclaimer to the site saying the numbers are not reliable.
A series of media reports have surfaced in the past week or so, uncovering examples of significant overcounting of stimulus-tied jobs in California, Massachusetts, Texas, Wisconsin, as well several states. For example:
The Boston Globe reviewed the 12,000-plus jobs claimed to have been created or saved by $4 billion in direct stimulus spending in Massachusetts. In one case, a state college reported having added 160 new work-study jobs tied to just $77,181 in stimulus funds. A spokesman for the school, Bridgewater State College, told the Globe that the actual number of jobs was "almost nothing."
The Globe described the Bay State's stimulus job figures as "wildly exaggerated."
A Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review found a sanitation department in Douglas County, Wis., that admitted to a typo that resulted in an estimate of 100 jobs saved or created, when the actual number was five.
According to USA Today, the Texas recipient of a $26,174 roofing contract reported erroneously that 450 jobs were created or saved when, in fact, six were.
Recovery Board Spokesman: 'Recipients Made Errors'
Issa, in his sternly phrased missive, points to what he says are commonsense-defying figures in his home state.
The California State University System reported 26,156 jobs, or more than half its statewide work force, were saved by stimulus funds.
"Does anyone seriously believe the CSU system would have fired half its work force without the stimulus?" Issa implored.
Ed Pound, a spokesman for the Recovery Board, couldn't comment on Issa's pending letter to Devaney.
But Pound pointed out that the Recovery Board expected recipients to make errors in calculating jobs numbers. More than 130,000 recipients submitted award reports.
"Recipients made errors, both underreporting and overreporting their jobs numbers," Pound said.
The Office of Management and Budget issued a series of reporting guidelines to funding agencies and recipients, however, "it's clear some of the recipients did not understand the OMB guidance," Pound said.
"We report what is provided to us," he emphasized.
It is likely that the jobs created-saved reporting yielded some lowball estimates, although not enough to balance what appear to be potentially widespread overestimates, according to some reports.
Robert Brodsky, a reporter with Government Executive, a trade publication that covers the federal bureaucracy, found several examples in recipient reports, suggesting that jobs estimates may have been undercounted. "Recipients frequently described the types of jobs that were saved using Recovery funds in one column of their reports, but in the next column over, they would say that no jobs were saved or created," Brodsky said. "Clearly, some recipients did not understand the guidance administered by the Office of Management and Budget."
While it may be impossible to conclusively state whether the 640,000 jobs figure is too high or too low, Brodsky said it's clear that the number advertised by the administration is not entirely correct and may require substantial revision.
Onvia, a Seattle-based database company that has tracked government spending since the mid-1990s, is providing data for the federal stimulus tracking Web site (see above) and its own site, www.recovery.org.
Michael Balsam, Onvia's chief solutions officer, agreed it was possible because of confusion over reporting guidelines, that there were equal amounts of undercounting and overcounting. But using Onvia's back-of-the-envelope analysis of the $30 billion to $40 billion in actual stimulus bucks that have left Washington, D.C,. and factoring in a White House claim that it would cost around $90,000 per each job saved or created, the 640,000 estimate is likely too high. The more accurate jobs total is closer to 400,000, Balsam hypothesized.
Issa worries that the public is being fed bunk info and has stopped short of accusing the administration of some form of chicanery.
Issa's press secretary, Kurt Bardella, offered his own rebuke, saying "the Obama administration is falling over itself trying to further this facade that they are creating and saving jobs, when the facts speak to the contrary."
"If the administration holds up this Recovery Board report on stimulus jobs as a way to show that they are being effective and transparent -- it is not proving their points very well," said Tom Schatz, president of the Washington, D.C,. nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste. "But the fact that the government is having difficulties keeping track of anything is hardly a surprise."
A House hearing on the issue is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 19, at 10 a.m.