Tighter Oversight Promised on Stimulus' Jobs Impact

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Members of the Obama administration told a congressional panel that they are working to better track how many jobs have been created or saved so far under the $787 billion federal stimulus program, in the wake of recent news reports questioning jobs data released recently.

Anthony Wilder Miller, the deputy secretary of education, and others testifying last month before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said that the stimulus has created hundreds of thousands of jobs and helped pull the nation’s economy back from the brink of financial ruin.

Mr. Miller, who oversees financial management at the U.S. Department of Education, said there would have been long-term repercussions for the nation’s economic future if hundreds of thousands of teachers had been laid off. And he said the stimulus has helped to advance education redesign goals, such as improving teacher quality.

But Republican lawmakers pointed to news reports that suggested the administration’s numbers could be inaccurate or inflated.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the top Republican on the committee, went so far as to call the administration’s numbers “propaganda”—and specifically questioned the claim of 300,000 education jobs created or saved. He said states simply used the federal funds to replace state and local money for teacher salaries, and then diverted the money elsewhere.

“Schoolteachers are important, federal workers are important, but that’s really where this has gone” rather than the private sector, Rep. Issa said.

U.S. Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, noted that states and districts are going to face a significant funding cliff when the money runs out in two years.

“This is not the type of spending that’s going to create the type of sustainable jobs we need,” he argued.

Committee Democrats, however, contended that without the stimulus, the economy would be in even worse shape.

Accountability Issues

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided up to $100 billion in education aid, was approved last winter with virtually no Republican support. The success of the stimulus is likely to be an issue in the 2010 midterm congressional elections.

A Government Accountability Office report released last month revealed that reporting systems across the government need improvement, particularly when it comes to reporting how many jobs have been created or saved using stimulus dollars.

But Gene L. Dodaro, the GAO’s acting comptroller general, told the committee that the administration has made a “good start” in tracking the funds.

Administration officials said that errors were bound to emerge, given the scope of the stimulus and the unprecedented transparency the law calls for.

“In the past, this data would have been scrubbed from top to bottom before its release, and the agencies would not have released the information until it was perfect,” said Earl E. Devaney, the chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, created under the ARRA to oversee stimulus implementation. “You—and the American public—are now seeing what agencies have seen, internally, in the past.”

The results, he said, are “not particularly pretty.” But the administration is using the errors that have been identified to improve reporting practices, he said.

Ripple Effects

In his testimony, Mr. Miller said the education funding has helped spur employment in ways not reflected in the overall jobs numbers. For instance, some school districts have spent their stimulus funding on classroom technology, such as electronic whiteboards. That has helped create and maintain jobs at the companies that make and sell such products, Mr. Miller said.

And he said he thought the department’s jobs data were generally accurate, although there may be some revisions in the future.

Mr. Miller told lawmakers that the agency was able to get almost $67 billion out the door relatively quickly, in part because it already had systems in place for much of that money, including funds allocated through formulas for special education and the Title I program, which serves disadvantaged students.

He said the department has done significant outreach to grant recipients and held biweekly webinars explaining the stimulus reporting requirements. What’s more, he said, officials will put together a document detailing what they have learned so far in implementing the stimulus.

Still, not all Democrats are refraining from criticizing the Obama administration’s tracking of the stimulus spending.

Last month, U.S. Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a key architect of the stimulus, railed against inaccuracies in the jobs data.

“Credibility counts in government, and stupid mistakes like this undermine it,” Rep. Obey said in a statement. “Whether the numbers are good news or bad news, I want the honest numbers, and I want them now.”

Vol. 29, Issue 13, Pages 16, 18

Published in Print: December 2, 2009, as Tighter Oversight Promised on Stimulus' Jobs Impact
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