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

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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.

As a substitute for determining the total amount GSA-funded projects spent on stimulus signs, GSA identified how much 105 projects spent on the signs. The projects, which spent $2.88 billion overall, spent $120,600 on stimulus signs, which GSA notes is .0042 percent of the total amount spent.

However, still unaccounted for is another $2.62 billion in stimulus projects funded by the GSA. In its response, the GSA does not indicate why it chose to account for only about half the projects (by money spent).

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has spent $38.6 billion on stimulus projects. In its response to Issa’s questions, DOT Deputy Assistant Secretary Joel Szabat notes that only $8.2 million of DOT’s stimulus dollars have been spent on the signs. “Barely 2 cents are spent on signs for every $100 being spent on [stimulus] transportation projects nationwide,” Szabat said.

However, as Issa and Schock note in objection to the cost estimates, DOT “provides no insight at all into the methodology used to obtain this number.” In other words, maybe they called up nine projects and called it a day! Who knows?

Only the Department of Defense appeared to labor over figuring out signage spending and clearly outlined its methodology. DOD Official Mike McCord estimated the military spent about $11,000 on stimulus signs, out of $7.4 billion of the total stimulus dollars allocated to it.

Issa and Schock remain undeterred in their quest to determine how much stimulus money was spent on stimulus signs, which Issa has criticized as “propaganda.”

“We are dismayed that federal agencies which spend hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money are unable or unwilling to provide you with the information you requested,” their Sept. 16 letter said, pressing the administration for more information.

The Obama administration has defended the signs as providing transparency about where the money is spent.

The top Obama administration stimulus oversight official, Earl Devaney, brought a unique new take to this argument in his overview of the signage cost estimates provided by the federal agencies.

According to Devaney, the signs are working in providing transparency because when people call the stimulus hotline to complain, they mention the signs.

“You should be aware that when Recovery.gov hotline users were asked how they knew [stimulus] money was at stake, approximately 40 percent of those with actionable complaints referenced the [stimulus law] signage.”

Now that’s making lemonade!

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