Analysis: Outrage over stimulus jobs misguided

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Another day, another flurry of outrage over the jobs numbers claimed by the government for the administration's $787 billion economic stimulus program.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) released a blistering statement Tuesday, taking to task flawed data in the federal figures that show $160 billion in spending had created or saved at least 640,000 jobs.

His criticism came in response to two ABC News stories. The first reported that the administration deleted 60,000 jobs from its list after it became clear that the figures were overstated. Then, on Monday, the network reported that the government had claimed $761,420 in spending and 30 jobs created in Arizona's 15th Congressional District -- a district that does not exist.

"The inaccuracies . . . are outrageous, and the administration owes itself, the Congress and every American a commitment to work night and day to correct the ludicrous mistakes," Obey said. "We designed the Recovery Act to be open and transparent. . . . Whether the numbers are good news or bad news, I want the honest numbers and I want them now."

But it is worth asking whether the administration's problem stems primarily from its decision to provide the numbers in the first place.

From the start, the Obama administration framed the stimulus act as a job-creating initiative, saying that it would create or save 3.5 million jobs over the next two years. Skeptics noted that this would be a very hard number to verify -- after all, how can one know for sure whether a job has been "saved"? But the administration and congressional Democrats not only stuck with that number, they also promised an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability, saying they would require recipients of the money to report how it had been spent and how many jobs they created or saved with it.

More and more, it is looking like this approach may have been a strategic mistake.

It is exceedingly difficult for even the most conscientious government agency or contractor to calculate the jobs impact of a stimulus grant or contract. How can one know for sure whether a job would have been lost in the absence of stimulus money? If money helped cover someone's paycheck for only a few weeks or months, how should that be counted? If money has been allocated but will not be spent for several months, should its jobs impact be tallied now or later?

A close examination of the stimulus reports suggests plenty of instances in which the number of created jobs is being understated, as some recipients of multiple millions of dollars report that they have yet to save or create a single job.

Even advocates for government transparency wonder whether the Obama administration would have been better off not trying to provide actual job tallies, instead simply requiring clear reports on how the money was spent -- information that is more useful and reliable.

"I would not have framed it as a jobs bill or a jobs law, as they have done," Gary Bass, the director of the government watchdog group OMB Watch, said in a recent interview.

As it is, the administration has left itself open to near-daily assaults on the credibility of the jobs numbers. Finding flaws in the data is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, and reporters have been all too happy to fire away -- first reporting the numbers with fanfare when they are announced, despite all their obvious shortcomings, and then, days or weeks later, reporting that they are not entirely sound.

The constant barrage of such stories may be taking a toll. In the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 23 percent of respondents say they think the stimulus act has hurt the economy, and 39 percent say that it has made no difference.

The White House pushed back against Obey's statement Tuesday with a lengthy retort from Ed DeSeve, the adviser to Vice President Biden who is in charge of implementing the stimulus. DeSeve argued that it was unfair to slight the administration for culling the 60,000 questionable jobs at the same time as it was being blamed for letting other questionable jobs slip through. The mistakes in the data have represented a sliver of the whole and often are clerical flubs that don't really touch on the heart of the reporting, he argued. "Transparency is going to be messy -- but it is better than the alternative," he wrote.

"It would be great if every report filed was correct the first time, on time, and contained no errors. But that's not realistic when 130,000 reports are being filed in a 10-day period," he said.

Chances are, there will be plenty more outrage-filled reports of faulty figures in the weeks and months to come. Republicans have asked the head of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, Earl Devaney, to appear Thursday before the House oversight committee. His task: to answer for the validity of jobs numbers that Congress demanded, only to now be surprised to find that they are less than perfect.

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