Democrats Launch Stimulus Road Show

House Committee to Hold Oversight Hearings

Posted March 4, 2009 at 6:32pm

Lawmakers are hitting the road to shine a spotlight on where the $787 billion economic stimulus package is working and where it’s falling short.

In the first stab at Congressional oversight of the massive measure, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) is planning a series of hearings both on Capitol Hill and around the country.

“Anything that’s doing well, working effectively, we want to encourage them to continue,— Towns said. “If it’s not, we want to say to them, You need to move in a different direction.’—

Unlike the Obama administration, Towns has relatively meager resources to dig into the package. The stimulus directs $350 million for executive branch agencies to hire auditors, investigators and analysts to root out waste and fraud. The Government Accountability Office alone is set to receive $25 million, money that will reportedly go to hiring about 100 staffers dedicated to examining stimulus-funded projects.

Towns’ committee, by contrast, has 80 staffers total. It has requested a budget of $23.9 million for the 111th Congress.

The New York Democrat said that while his committee would be conducting its own investigations, it would also work with the executive branch to highlight its findings and ensure inspectors general and others charged with investigating maintain independence.

Towns has his skeptics, including those who doubt House Democrats will move aggressively to find problems in a package they helped pass on a party-line vote.

A House Democratic aide acknowledged the majority will look to score some political points with the hearings by holding some in districts held by Republicans — all of whom voted against the stimulus — and finding local residents to talk about the measure’s positive impact. “It is important to go to these Republican districts, to showcase what’s good and what’s bad with this,— the aide said.

Towns said one GOP-held district that could get a visit from his committee is that of Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), the panel’s ranking member and whose home-state governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was one of a handful of GOP chief executives who publicly pressed for the package. But Towns rejected the suggestion that the point of such a trip would be to turn the screws on his Republican colleague.

“I think he’d be anxious and eager to see how the money is being spent, and we can evaluate it,— he said.

Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella said the minority has yet to be briefed on the plan, and he did not want to “prejudge it.—

“What’s more important than where these hearings are is the content,— he said. “We’re more concerned with having productive hearings that give us new information.—

The hearings kick off next week, when top administration officials are expected to testify before the oversight panel on the Hill. Towns’ plan is to head outside the Beltway for a full committee field hearing once every three months. The first is set for April 20 in Towns’ Brooklyn district.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the panel should take a page from what the financial services committees are doing to supplement the administration’s oversight of the Wall Street bailout. “You would expect them to have a similar type of megaphone approach to what the administration panels uncover, and also are going to hold the administration and state and local entities accountable,— he said.

Lawmakers will miss their window to be most effective if they do not act quickly to force the administration to clearly state its goals for the stimulus, said David Walker, president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and a former comptroller general.

“It’s not clear to me what is being done up front to lay out clearly defined objectives, what will get funded and what won’t, and lay out conditions about what you can and can’t do with the money before it flows,— he said.

Towns said that will be a focus of next week’s hearing. “We want to make sure they have safeguards in place to prevent mismanagement,— he said.