Some include the words, "Barack Obama, President." Most say "Putting America to Work." All say "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." Regardless, if you see another gaudy sign promoting the $862 billion stimulus package, Rep. Darrell Issa wants to know about it.
Issa, the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has set up an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, asking folks to send pictures of the signs with information. The California Republican also asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to explore whether the signs promoting the recovery act, and other actions he considers propaganda, are legal.
The Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board is expected to release a report about the cost of the signs this month. Congress did not make signs a part of the recovery act. Rather, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a March 2009 directive for posting the signs.
"Projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will bear a newly-designed emblem," the OMB directive said. "The emblem is a symbol of President Obama's commitment to the American People to invest their tax dollars wisely to put Americans back to work."
The words "will bear" imply a mandate for all state and local governments or contractors getting stimulus money to post these advertisements. That's not the case, at least not now. Some federal agencies required the posting of the signs, but scaled that back to "strongly encourage" the posting of signs, according to recent inspector general reports from the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce still requires the posting, according to its IG report.
By far, the Department of Transportation has the strictest guidelines, regarding size and visibility of the signs and making no bones that the point of the signs was to "publicize" the recovery act.
"Despite eliminating requirements to post signs, Department of Transportation agencies are still improperly focused on pushing projects to display signs crediting President Obama and the so-called 'stimulus' for earmarked funding handouts," Issa said in a statement. "The administration's obsession with using taxpayer money to get political credit for projects adds unnecessary expenses and bureaucracy to a spending package that's failing to spur promised job creation in the private sector."
The Obama administration insists that the signs are just its way of being transparent.
"The Department of Transportation continues to believe that taxpayers have the right to know where their Recovery Act dollars are being spent," DOT spokesman Bill Adams told CNSNews.com.
The DOT agency guidelines vary. But the Office of Inspector General reported that most agency say that signs "be placed where they can be easily identified with the corresponding projects."
The Federal Aviation Administration guidelines said "the signs should be solely used to publicize ARRA funding of an airport project," according to the IG report.
And state or local politicians should not even think about getting as much credit for the existence of the project as the Obama administration. The Federal Railroad Administration guidance states, "Grantees may elect to have a secondary project sign which identifies other project partners." But it says, "Such secondary signs should be smaller and less prominent than ARRA Project Sign."
The FRA also states the signs "should take the form of a decal, no smaller than 12 inches measured diagonally. For passenger rail cars, such decals should be placed so as to be visible to every passenger entering the car."
Like other agencies, the FRA guidelines initially said, "The grantee shall post a sign at all fixed project locations at the most publicly accessible location and a plaque in all purchased or rehabilitated rail cars announcing that the project or equipment was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration with funds provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." This "shall" was dropped in favor of encouraging such posting.
The Federal Transit Administration's first issued guidelines on April 7, 2009 that said the recipient "agrees" to post the emblem. But FTA officials told the IG they changed that policy to "encourage" on Aug. 14, 2009.
For the federal government to tell a grant recipient it "strongly encourages" something is sort of like the mafia telling someone it would be in their best interest to do something. Even if it there was no risk of losing the stimulus dollars by not following this encouragement, it is likely most state and local officials hoping to get there projects funded erred on the side of caution and just posted the dang signs. To their credit, both New York and Georgia reportedly opted against posting the signs because of cost.
HUD suggested possible signs for recipients of stimulus-funded projects, one that said "Funded By: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act/ Barack Obama, President." The Department of Commerce guidance says, "All projects which are funded by the Recovery Act shall display signage that features the Primary Emblem throughout the construction phase. The signage should be displayed in a prominent location on site." The Commerce IG report says, "Our review found no instances in which a bureau had relaxed the Commerce's Recovery Act signage policy requirements or the implementation of those requirements."
If the signs and the hyper-intense guidelines stressing their importance are indeed propaganda, it could be illegal.
Appropriations law prohibits something "purely partisans in nature" that is "designed to aid a political party or candidate;" or "covert propaganda" that does not reveal that government expenditures produced the messages, according to a report by Republican staff on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Meanwhile, 18 U.S.C Section 1913 says, "No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter or other device" to influence a public official, the statute says. The committee staff report says the signs and other propaganda could be a violation of the Hatch Act, a law restricting political activity by public officials and public agencies.
The matter drew attention after media reports on the $10,000 sign at Dulles Airport. While waiting to hear back from the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency board on the cost of the signs, Republicans on the oversight committee found that Ohio spent $1 million on recovery signs and Illinois spent $640,000.
Further, a typical "Men at Work" or "Right Lane Closed" sign can be recycled and used for years to come on various projects. Not these signs, pointed out one member of the oversight committee who has been investigating the signs.
"It's blatant propaganda on the part of the Obama administration to take credit for the spending of public dollars," Rep. Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican, told CNSNews.com. "It's propaganda that will be worthless in a matter of years."
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