How much did government agencies spend on stimulus ‘propaganda’? They’re not sure

Imagine, for a second, you work at the Environmental Protection Agency, and your job is to determine how much money EPA-funded stimulus projects spent on self-congratulatory, “your taxpayer dollars at work” stimulus signs.

EPA received more than $7 billion in stimulus funds, and so far that money has been directed to 4,687 projects, many of which purchased signs.

Do you, (a) comprehensively audit each project’s sign spending, (b) chose a random and representative sample of the projects to determine the scope of the sign spending or, (c) call up nine projects and call it a day?

If you picked “c,” come on down! Pressed by top GOP oversight official Rep. Darrell Issa for the exact amount EPA-funded projects have spent on the signs, EPA forwarded a nine-project survey from its Office of Inspector General.

As EPA Assistant Administrator Craig Hooks explained, the agency is unable to determine how much money was spent on the signs.

“EPA did not have information on the total cost of posting signs, logos or emblems related to the [economic stimulus law],” Hooks said in a Sept. 3 response, “Therefore we cannot provide an assessment of the total cost of posting signs, logos or emblems.”

Instead, the agency queried nine projects, finding projects spent from $3.20 to $945 on between one and 250 signs.

For one, $2 billion pot of money, EPA asked a single project about its sign spending.

As Issa and fellow oversight committee member Rep. Aaron Shock, Illinois Republican, note in a response to EPA and the other federal agencies that dismally failed to account for spending on the stimulus signs, “As you may know, sample sizes of at least 20 randomly selected and unbiased data points are typically required to produce an estimate that contains any meaningful information about a given population.”

Issa and Schock cite a statistics textbook, “Introductory Econometrics: A Modern Approach,” as evidence of this point.

Hooks defended evaluating only nine projects by saying his hands were tied behind his back by the Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires OMB approval for some agencies to “gather requested cost information.” An Issa spokesman was unsympathetic to the argument; the law in question was designed to reduce onerous paperwork requirements on businesses, not shield federal agencies from oversight.

Though EPA was the worst offender, other agencies questioned about stimulus sign spending were similarly uncooperative.

The General Services Administration (GSA), which operates many of the buildings belonging to the federal government, also appeared flustered by the questions.

“Signage costs are not identified as a separate line item … this makes it extremely difficult to accurately identify costs associated with individual project signs,” GSA’s Stephen Leeds wrote.