White House, Coburn wage fight over claims of wasteful spending

A report from Sen. Tom Coburn’s office that purports to identify $5.5 billion in wasteful stimulus spending continues a war of words between congressional Republicans and the Obama administration over how best to revive a sagging economy.

Coburn’s office identified 100 projects of what it said was dubious value culled from local news accounts of how federal economic stimulus dollars were being spent.

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Many of the projects, according to Coburn, will provide few if any new jobs.

But Obama administration officials sharply disagree both with Coburn’s overarching point about the value of the stimulus as well as with several specific examples cited in the report.

Ed DeSeve, senior adviser to the president for recovery act implementation, said Coburn’s report is “filled with inaccuracies, including criticisms of projects that have already been stopped, projects that never were approved, and some projects that are working quite well.”

For example, the administration questioned one project that Coburn mentioned in the report. A new $1.1 million guardrail project around a lake in Oklahoma– the seventh example of waste cited in Coburn’s report — has already been canceled, the administration said.

Other projects cited in the report include: $1 billion to build a coal plant in Illinois that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide; $3.4 million to construct a tunnel to provide turtles and other animals safe passage underneath a busy Florida highway, $15.8 million to repair rural bridges in Wisconsin that are rarely used; and $215,000 for a bike path in Durango, Colo., so kids don’t have to walk to school.

“If Coburn has found any problematic projects, we will address them immediately — but much of this seems to be little more than an objection to the Recovery Act itself, which Coburn opposed,” DeSeve said. He added that 20,000 projects have been approved so far under the program.

The administration contends that the $787 billion stimulus program will save or create 3.5 million jobs to shore up a listless economy that has seen unemployment reach 9.4 percent in May. The administration argues that the program will save or create 600,000 jobs by the end of Obama’s second 100 days in office.

Coburn, however, is unconvinced that the program is having any effect.

“The jobs that may have been created or saved from the stimulus are not offsetting the millions of jobs that our economy is still hemorrhaging,” Coburn wrote in the report.

Some of the stimulus money will be awarded through competitive grants, but much of it is being distributed through formulas based on a city’s size and other demographic factors.

The consequence, according to Coburn’s report, is that towns, cities and states are getting money for things they don’t need.

The town of Union, N.Y., for example, is getting $578,661 to prevent homelessness although it doesn’t have homeless people, according to Coburn’s report, which is basically a compilation of local news reports about where federal stimulus dollars are going.

But wasteful spending, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, and projects listed as wasteful by Coburn have their defenders.

Alan Pope, Union’s attorney, said the town does have a significant number of senior citizens who are struggling to pay their bills and stay in their homes. He said town officials worked with staff from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is responsible for distributing the money for this particular program, to meet the conditions laid out in the economic recovery package.

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The money, which Pope said the town has not yet received, will go toward helping seniors pay their rising energy bills.

“This is a very, very good program,” Pope said.

Coburn’s report also knocked the decision by Congress to keep the so-called Future Gen project going. The Bush administration decided to cancel the project, which would build a commercial scale coal-powered utility that sequesters carbon dioxide emissions underground.

At the time, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman noted its rising costs. But the stimulus bill resurrected the program by requiring a portion of the money for carbon sequestration research be spent on a commercial-scale “shovel ready” project. Despite the claims the stimulus package was earmark-free, only the proposed FutureGen site in Illinois qualified.

Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for the FutureGen Alliance, a consortium of private companies that are working with the government to build the coal plant, said the effort deserved funding because it seeks to address a critical public policy issue: how to reduce carbon emissions from coal, which now generates around 50 percent of the nation’s electricity.

“It is an important and necessary investment in our energy future,” Pacheco said.

In a preamble to the report Coburn acknowledges that bold action was needed to boost the struggling economy and that some stimulus has created some jobs. But he said tax cuts and regulatory relief would have done the trick better.