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April 11th, 2009

Tracking the stimulus cash: Google and… you!

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If you’re wondering just how wisely $787 billion of your tax money will be spent in the stimulus package, this will strike you as somewhat troubling:

On February 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, the Republican Whip in the House, and GOP Sen. John Thune 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.

Part of the stimulus package was a promise of transparency. There are several Federal websites, including Recovery.gov and USAspending.gov — but, as the article notes, it will be “months, if not years” before they’ll be able to tel us how (let alone how well) our money was spent.

Moreover, the ProPublica blog points out that those sites only track Federal spending, and that the stimulus legislation “doesn’t clearly define how states and other recipients of the money will have to report information.”

Fortunately, there will be plenty of citizens keeping an eye on where their tax money is being spent:

More than two million people have visited stimuluswatch.org, which was created by Jerry Brito, a government-transparency expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Users can read about local projects officials have proposed across the country and submit comments. Around 100,000 votes have been cast at the site on the suitability of some projects, according to site administrators.

Speaking of the states, given the promises that were made that the $787 billion stimulus would be devoted to “shovel-ready” projects, this is not encouraging:

Almost every state has produced a local version of the Obama administration’s recovery.gov Web site, which describes and promotes the stimulus plan. But governors of six states — Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Virginia — have gone further, inviting residents to submit ideas online about what they would like officials to do with the money.

Unsurprisingly, the suggestions run from the serious to the silly, including money to run Halloween parties in school gyms. But wasn’t the idea of the stimulus that our money was going to be spent on projects that were “targeted, timely and temporary”? It almost sounds as though the states decided to get our money first and decide what to do with it later.

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About the HSH Blog

HSH.com's daily blog focuses on the latest developments in the mortgage and housing markets. Our mission is to relate how changes in mortgage rates and housing policy, as well as the latest financial news, impacts consumers, homebuyers and industry insiders alike. Our 30-plus years of experience in the mortgage industry gives us an edge as we break down the latest changes in an ever-changing market.

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Tim Manni

Tim Manni is the Managing Editor of HSH.com and the author of their daily blog, which concentrates on the latest developments in the mortgage and housing markets.

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