The Recovery Act's Real Legacy: Transparency
by Sam Rosen-Amy, 2/17/2010
Yes, today is the Recovery Act's birthday, and to celebrate, everyone and their uncle are rushing to "evaluate" (translation: put their spin on) the Act. Did the Recovery Act create jobs? Did it avert the Great Depression II? Are we getting anything for the $862 billion? The answer to all these questions is "Yes" (see here, here, and here for some good evidence), but the debate ignores the more lasting legacy of the entire Act: its transparency provisions.
While the Act might have included too many tax cuts, too few tax cuts, or not enough infrastructure projects, or the Democrats might have undersold the stimulus, or oversold it, the one thing that cannot be denied is that the Act has substantially advanced the cause of fiscal transparency. We could complain that the transparency provisions of the Act are not perfect, but without the Act, we wouldn't even have anything to gripe about. We'd still be stuck arguing whether timely recipient reporting is a feasible goal or not.
In this sense, the Recovery Act provided a convenient pilot program for fiscal transparency. Now, one year later, the Act has not only proved that broad-based recipient reporting is feasible, it has shown that the reporting is useful. By showing how multiple levels of recipients (although not all levels of sub-recipients) have used their federal funding, the Recovery Act has provided the government and its citizens an unprecedented ability to see where its money has gone. And there's also the often-overlooked Agency Reports, which provide weekly updates of spending levels for every Recovery Act program, a response time that is almost unheard of in federal government.
The Act has also shown that there is a demand for this kind of transparency. At its height, Recovery.gov, the Act's homepage, was receiving millions of visitors a day, and still receives significant levels of traffic. Journalists and analysts, in addition to average citizens, routinely use the site as a resource. We may have our problems with the site, but it still is a marked improvement over the status quo, and serves as a starting point on the road to better fiscal accountability.
The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which created USAspending.gov, helped advance federal transparency. When USAspending.gov was first released, it only included data from a few federal agencies; now, it has spending data from every federal agency, and is an important part of federal fiscal transparency.
Hopefully, three years, five years down the line, we will be saying similar things about the Recovery Act and recipient reporting, long after we've stopped arguing about just how many jobs the Act created.
[Side note: If you want more "Recovery Act at One Year" analysis, sign up here for our webcast next week on that very topic.]