RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When congressional leaders began to assemble the mammoth economic stimulus bill, top Democrats and the Obama administration made a decision: no earmarks -no special projects, no pork barrel spending. And yet using earmarks is one of the ways lawmakers control how money is spent after it leaves the federal treasury. So who's making those decisions now?
NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK: The answer is, instead of Congress, hundreds and hundreds of public servants all over the country will decide how to spend the economic stimulus money.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Democracy 21): Someone has to decide how money gets spent. It's either going to be Congress or the executive branch, or the states or local municipalities.
SEABROOK: Fred Wertheimer of the congressional watchdog group Democracy 21. He says lawmakers had good reasons for stripping earmarks from the bill, because if they're in it…
Mr. WERTHEIMER: They are simply going to become huge targets for attacking the credibility of the package, and they may well wind up as abusive earmarks.
SEABROOK: So, says Wertheimer, it was a wise political decision. But when you pull earmarks out of the bill, you also change the balance of power in the government. If members of Congress aren't writing into the bill how the money is to be spent, then someone else is making those decisions. And in this case, lots and lots of other people are, says Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution.
Ms. SARAH BINDER (Brookings Institution): Because there is so much money here and in so many different forms, there's no single pathway, right, for the money to go out to states and localities.
SEABROOK: When this bill passes, a Niagara Falls of money will flow out of Washington and into the accounts of state highway commissioners, governors and legislatures, local school boards, county executives — even mayors, says Binder.
Ms. BINDER: It raises a whole host of questions about how efficiently money will be spent, how effectively money will be spent, how quickly money can be spent, just because there's no set process here for determining how the money will get out the door to create jobs or, as the president said, to save jobs.
Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin): We simply made a decision, which took about three seconds, not to have earmarks in the bill.
SEABROOK: This is David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He helped write this bill, and he does not like being asked about earmarks.
Rep. OBEY: And with all due respect, that's the least important question facing us on putting together this package.
SEABROOK: Does that mean, though, that Congress will have less control and less, in fact, ability to say you spent it the way we wanted you to spend it and…
Rep. OBEY: Of course it does, of course it does. So what? This is an emergency, and so with all due respect, we've got to simply find a way to get this done as fast as possible and as well as possible, and that's what we're doing.
SEABROOK: Aren't there a thousand ways that this money could be spent badly, though?
Rep. OBEY: There are a thousand ways it can be spent badly. There are a thousand ways it can be spent well. So what's new?
SEABROOK: What's new is that you're not telling them how to spend it as much as you usually do.
Rep. OBEY: So what?
SEABROOK: Won't you be responsible when it's spent badly, then?
Rep. OBEY: No, the person who spends the money badly will be responsible. We are simply trying to build as many protections in as possible. We've got more oversight built into this package than any package in the history of man. We want - if money is spent badly, we want to know about it so we can hold accountable the people who made that choice. And guess what? Regardless of what we do, there will be some stupid decisions made.
SEABROOK: Now, earmarks might not be the best way to direct local governments in how to spend the stimulus money, but it would, at least, be a way to do it. As it stands now, says David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general, there appears to be no mechanism in the bill for directing net spending. It's simply left up to the states and local officials, and they may or may not have the ideas or the means to spend it appropriately.
Mr. DAVID WALKER (Former U.S. Comptroller General): You're going to be reporting on a series of disappointments that it's too late to do anything about.
SEABROOK: Walker says the bill does make it possible for lawmakers and the public to track the money, but only after it's spent. And that, he says, will lead to bad surprises. Just look at the giant bank bailout known as TARP. That spending has gone all wrong, says Walker, though the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office are keeping track of the billions spent there.
Mr. WALKER: But they're basically reporting about what didn't happen. Well, it's a little bit late. And so the question is, well, what are you going to do on a prospective basis? I mean, you can't change history. What are you going to put a mechanism in place that will minimize the possibility of being disappointed again?
SEABROOK: So it seems everyone agrees that when the government spends money, there will always be some bad decisions. The question is, with a bill that spends hundreds of billions of dollars, how much waste will there be, and what can Congress do before the cash is doled out?
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.