WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden proclaimed success beyond expectations Thursday for the $787 billion economic stimulus, but his glowing assessment overlooks many of the program's problems, including delays in releasing money, questionable spending priorities and project picks that are under investigation.
In a speech aimed squarely at Republican criticism and public skepticism over the costly program's effectiveness, Biden said accomplishments over the past 100 days provide proof of promises kept when he and President Barack Obama began rolling out the plan earlier this year.
"The Recovery Act is doing more, faster and more efficiently and more effectively than most people expected," he said.
The stimulus program includes tax cuts, billions for Medicaid and unemployment benefits, and a massive federal investment in education, environmental projects, technology and traditional infrastructure work. The administration has struggled to make the case that the huge spending program has delivered real economic recovery at a time when the nation's unemployment rate threatens to top 10 percent.
Biden, Obama's chief stimulus cheerleader, proudly pointed to more than 2,200 highway projects Thursday funded by the program, but didn't mention the growing frustration among contractors that the transportation money is only trickling out and thus far hasn't delivered the needed boost in jobs.
"It is difficult to understand why more communities aren't moving to put their stimulus funds to work while they are experiencing these kinds of job losses," Stephen E. Sandherr, head of the Associated General Contractors of America, said in a statement this week. "Coping with the red tape required by the stimulus ought to be worth it to help put neighbors and friends back to work."
Biden noted 192 airport jobs targeted with stimulus money, but made no reference to the investigation launched after a federal watchdog raised concerns about how the projects were selected.
Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said last month he will examine the Federal Aviation Administration's process for selecting programs for the $1.1 billion in grant money. His announcement came after his office discovered that the Obama administration used stimulus money to pay for 50 airport projects that didn't meet the grant criteria and approved projects at four airports with a history of mismanaging federal grants.
Lack of competitive bidding
And Biden praised the more than 2,400 military construction projects paid for with stimulus money, but ignored the millions of dollars in savings the Defense Department lost because it hasn't competitively bid many of the jobs.
The Defense Department frequently awards no-bid work to small contractors for repairs at military bases under the stimulus, costing taxpayers millions of dollars more than when businesses compete for the work, an Associated Press analysis of 570 such contracts found.
Biden exercised some restraint in his praise for the stimulus' impact. He took a more cautious approach, for example, when asked if his declaration of stimulus success means Americans can now rethink the common view that government is wasteful and inefficient.
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"I think it's too early to make that decision, to be very blunt about it," he said.
And Biden didn't attempt to credit the stimulus alone for signs of broad economic recovery, saying it was one of several government actions that are helping.
"Had we done just this and not done the incredibly unpopular thing of bailing out the banks, had we had done this and tried to deal with stabilizing the housing market, had we done only this we would not be where we are," he said.
But most of Biden's remarks focused on what he argued is evidence of success with the stimulus, even if his examples were questionable.
In making the case that the recovery program was not just economically sound but also good policy, Biden noted that transportation money was replacing unsafe bridges.
"It is worthwhile to take some of those 5,000 bridges out there that are ready to collapse, follow what happened in the upper Midwest, and fix them," he said.
But most states are spending stimulus money on bridges that are already in good shape, another AP analysis found. Of the 2,476 bridges scheduled to receive stimulus money so far, nearly half have passed inspections with high marks, according to federal data. Those 1,123 sound bridges received such high inspection ratings that they normally would not qualify for federal bridge money, yet they will share in more than $1.2 billion in stimulus money, the AP analysis published in July found.
The vice president's speech is part of a concerted White House push in advance of the 200th day of the stimulus act on Saturday. Five top administration officials also were speaking about the law's benefits on Thursday in appearances in Arkansas, Virginia, Illinois, California and Minnesota.
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