Federal agencies tapped to track infrastructure funds

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Federal agencies implementing the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law have now all appointed senior officials to oversee their department’s share of spending, a senior budget official told Spectrum News. , a key administration directive as the White House seeks to prevent wasteful or fraudulent spending that sometimes plagues major federal programs.

About six months into the law’s implementation, $110 billion in funding is underway and more than 4,000 projects are underway across the United States, the White House said, newslines high-speed rail in Florida to electric vehicle charging stations in Wisconsin. .

Now, at the federal level, agencies are primarily responsible for tracking money as it flows to states, cities and individual projects, according to guidelines from the White House Budget Office.

The first step was to appoint a “senior responsible official” to oversee implementation.

“Agencies already have their responsible officials in place and they meet regularly,” said Jason Miller, deputy director of management in the Office of Management and Budget.

“[Agencies] are the entities responsible for implementing their programs,” he added.

The Department of Transportation, which is responsible for more than $283 billion of the $550 billion in new money, first appointed its chief enforcement officer, Katie Thomson, in December, shortly after the White House named former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu as the leader of the law. coordinator.

Over the next five years, the law is expected to provide $110 billion in new dollars for roads, highways and bridges, $66 billion for rail, more than $63 billion for drinking water, $65 billion $39 billion for broadband, $39 billion for mass transit and more, according to the White House.

Working with Federal Watch Dogs

Among the White House’s initial instructions to agencies is also a call to work with inspectors general – the federal watchdogs tasked with identifying and investigating waste, fraud or mismanagement within a department. .

President Joe Biden met with these inspectors general at the White House in late April to hammer home the message, telling them that “strong oversight is how we’re going to deliver for the American people on time and on budget” and s ‘ensure that investments’ get to where they are supposed to go.

President Joe Biden, center, listens during a meeting with Inspectors General in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, April 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, told Spectrum News it was a positive move.

“The Biden administration seems to be, you know, welcoming them a little bit earlier, which is good,” he said. “They involve them in designing a program rather than, you know, really investigating the money after it’s been paid out.”

Part of that strategy goes back to Biden’s own experience overseeing the Recovery Act of 2009, the OMB’s Miller said. That legislation included an oversight board of 11 inspectors general, with the top watchdog on that money reporting “less than 1%” losses from fraud.

But some Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee want more centralized oversight.

Rep. Rodney Davis, a senior member of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, introduced a bill with Rep. Peter Meijer to create a special inspector general specifically for the Infrastructure Act.

Davis said he would push for the new IG again if Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in November, which could make him the head of the highways and transit subcommittee.

“We will use our oversight responsibilities in the majority to hold the administration accountable. We will appeal to all of these individual GIs. I would definitely like to bring in a special IG who is there just for infrastructure spending,” he said in an interview with Spectrum News. “We need to be sure that those dollars will actually be spent as planned.”

Track dollars at the door

A lingering concern, Moulton says, is how spending is reported to federal agencies after being awarded to states, when it’s often broken down into smaller local awards and individual projects.

The OMB has asked agencies to collect data on a project-by-project basis, Miller said.

“It goes much further than what is required by law,” he added. “We want to know, at the project level, precisely where the dollars are being spent, how the dollars are being spent, and what phase the project is in.”

Moulton said this requirement has potential, but he is concerned about the lack of detailed, standardized reporting instructions for agencies so that the spending data collected is “apples to apples”.

“At the national level, it often gets lost. We do not see what the States do with this money. We do not see this sub-attribution to a port project,” he said. “Whoever oversees this, we don’t see who they hire. And so, you know, we get this incomplete picture.

Part of that incomplete picture could be whether or not the money is being spent fairly, Moulton noted, a key priority for the Biden administration. Equity “expertise” is another thing the OMB has enlisted from federal agencies.

Asked about project reporting requirements, an OMB spokesperson told Spectrum News that they plan to work with agencies to “implement program-specific approaches” to collect data on spending, aiming for consistency “while taking into account the wide range of projects” under the Infrastructure Act. .

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