For three years, the investigative arm of Congress has seen its staff dwindle in size. Now, the agency is getting a $25 million infusion of cash from the stimulus bill signed by President Obama last month to hire investigators, auditors and others to track hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending to jump-start the economy.
The stimulus bill contains $330.5 million for oversight and offers the president his first opportunity to put into practice his campaign pledge to demand greater accountability of federal spending. It provides $25 million for the Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan congressional agency; $84 million to create an accountability board within the administration and $221.5 million to the inspectors general who serve as department watchdogs.
The GAO will use the money to hire about 100 accountants, lawyers, economists and policy analysts to root out and prevent waste and fraud by the federal, state and local agencies spending the money, GAO spokesman Chuck Young says. "The GAO has been at a record low in terms of our personnel for several years, so we certainly have the room to add people," Young says.
The idea was not only to give investigators the resources needed to oversee such a large amount of money but also to "remove the ability of people to rationalize their failure," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
"They're not going to be able to hang their hat on the excuse of not having enough resources to look at this spending," said McCaskill, a former state auditor.
Will all of this prevent misuse of the money?
"While I'm sure that everybody will do their best, there's no question there will be waste," said David Walker, a former head of the GAO who is president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a non-partisan group that promotes federal fiscal responsibility. "The only question is, how much waste will there be?"
Walker said he's encouraged by the focus on oversight but concerned that there may not be clear goals for what the spending is supposed to produce or guidelines for how the money is to be distributed and spent. "If you don't have those rules in place, by merely having more people look at what's happened after the fact, all you're going to do is identify problems too late," Walker said.
Republicans such as Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas are skeptical. Unlike the $700 billion financial rescue package, which required the creation of a congressional oversight panel, the stimulus law does not include an oversight board that reports to Congress. Instead, federal agencies must report on spending to Congress.
"I don't know that the American public believes that the White House holding the White House accountable is really good for them," said Brady, the senior House Republican on the Joint Economic Committee.
Brady was part of a group of GOP lawmakers who announced last week that they were forming a group to monitor the spending.
"The federal government is getting set to simply rain cash down on America," Brady said. "We want to know where these dollars land and whether it grows jobs as promised."
Vice President Biden said last week that he would meet once a week with Cabinet secretaries to discuss how the stimulus money is spent. Obama and Biden have been highly critical of what they said was a lack of accountability by the Bush administration, particularly over the $51 billion the United States approved for Iraq reconstruction.
Each department has an office of inspector general that serves as a watchdog over spending. Sometimes a special inspector general's office is created to monitor large programs.
In this case, the administration is doing a little of both. It is providing each inspector general with additional money. It is also creating the Accountability and Transparency Board, headed by former Interior Department watchdog Earl Devaney.
Devaney said his goal is to minimize waste and fraud before the money is spent. "Everybody seems to be focusing on trying to prevent waste and fraud, as opposed to just simply detecting it and doing investigations and audits," he said.
Setting up oversight from the beginning provides better chances of success, said Clark Kent Ervin, who was the first inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security.
"The sooner you have such mechanisms in place, the greater your chances of minimizing problems," Ervin said.
How the money's divided
The $787 billion economic stimulus plan includes $330.5 million to prevent waste and mismanagement in spending the stimulus money.
Here's where it would go:
Source: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act