Republicans are preparing to pounce on any wasteful spending in the $787 billion stimulus package as they refocus their criticisms of a measure whose success could hurt their 2010 election prospects.
President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats also promise rigorous oversight, including a new Web site to help people track various projects funded by the massive bill. But the two parties will reap different political rewards if they find waste or abuse, which is virtually inevitable when the government tries to spend so much money so fast, authorities say.
Democrats want the plan to unfold as smoothly as possible, because voters see it as the product of their party and Obama. Congressional Republicans, however, opposed the bill almost unanimously, and any embarrassing examples of misused funds or other shortcomings will let them say, "I told you so."
Sending in the watchdogs
House Republicans are setting up "a stimulus-watch program" that will allow watchdog groups and private citizens to report findings as contractors and agencies start spending billions of dollars on roads, schools, renewable energy projects and other initiatives, said House GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.
"We'll be taking a look in detail" and "really providing accountability and transparency," Cantor said in an interview Wednesday.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement: "House Republicans are concerned about the potential for abuse of taxpayer funds in the massive trillion-dollar spending bill that the president signed into law this week. ... We will remain vigilant in our oversight efforts."
Some GOP lawmakers and aides say that even relatively small examples of spending abuse will feed conservative talk shows and fuel criticism of the plan's implementation, just as a handful of dubious items in the bill helped House Republicans mock it and stay united against it. Only three Senate Republicans voted for the bill, giving it the minimum needed for passage.
Democratic leaders say Republicans have painted themselves into a corner, and they can convince voters of their wisdom only if the stimulus package fails to stabilize the economy. In other words, the Democrats' thinking goes, Republican lawmakers have every incentive to find fault, fraud and failure in a plan the White House touts as Americans' best hope for saving jobs, homes and retirement accounts.
"It's one thing to do everything you can to hold people accountable," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who chairs the Democrats' House campaign committee. "It's another thing for your strategy to bank on cronyism and abuse. It is a very cynical approach."
GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California said Republicans want the economy to improve as much as anyone does, even if it allows Democrats to claim credit. But as the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he is trying to exceed Democrats in holding the government accountable for the stimulus bill's spending.
If the much-maligned financial sector bailout is a guide, then "unchecked efforts to rapidly spend billions of dollars involve significant risks of waste, fraud and abuse," Issa said in a letter to the inspectors general of the major federal agencies. The letter asks several questions, including, "Is the Office of Inspector General implementing any initiative to preemptively combat waste, fraud and abuse?"
The Defense Department, which spends huge amounts of money at home and abroad, has been accused of numerous lapses over the years, although the infamous $600 hammer was more myth than reality, officials say.
The self-described watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says that under the new stimulus bill, "some federal agencies are seeing their budgets doubled or more. Coupled with the demand for speed, it is easy to foresee billions of dollars being wasted."
In many places the federal government lacks the resources it needs to prepare the way for efficient contracts, said Stan Z. Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a trade group for government contractors.
"We have a shortage of engineering skills, a shortage of cost-and-pricing skills," said Soloway, a former deputy undersecretary of defense. The Obama administration is taking well-meaning steps to oversee the spending, but some irregularities are inevitable, he said, and people should try to learn details before jumping to conclusions of fraud.
Keeping up with the recovery
The White House has established a Web site, Recovery.gov, designed to help Americans track projects funded by the stimulus bill. Obama says in a video: "The size and scale of this plan demand unprecedented efforts to root out waste, inefficiency and unnecessary spending. Recovery.gov will be the online portal for these efforts, publishing information about how the funding secured by the legislation will be spent in a timely, targeted and transparent manner."
His oversight efforts are off to a slow start elsewhere, however. The stimulus spending is to be monitored by an oversight board of high-ranking officials and chaired by the newly created post of chief performance officer. Obama is trying to fill the job after his first choice, Nancy Killefer, withdrew because of tax problems.