White House pushes for accountability on infrastructure spending
The push for accountability comes as the federal government prepares to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming years on roads, bridges, broadband, public transit systems and water lines. The White House Budget Office issued a memo to agencies on Friday to guide their spending, urging them to prioritize transparency. At the same time, officials said they were looking to hire 6,000 workers this year to oversee the implementation of the package, with another 2,000 positions to be filled in the coming years.
“This is a $1.2 trillion bill. It’s the biggest in a generation,” Mitch Landrieu, the White House infrastructure coordinator, said in an interview. “This is really going to give us an incredible opportunity to build bigger, faster, better and stronger. And we haven’t built that much since we built the highway. So obviously, it will stretch us.
The administration has opened up applications for the bill’s funding and set out directions for new programs in recent weeks. But turning that money into roads or broadband connections will take time, as officials figure out which projects are worth funding.
Billions of dollars to cut emissions come with few strings attached
White House officials say Biden is building on his role as vice president overseeing the stimulus package after the 2008 financial crisis. It was a similar amount of money, but was meant to kickstart quick thumbs up to the economy. The infrastructure package includes a set of investments that Landrieu says will continue for years to come.
“If you’re really rebuilding the whole country, you can imagine it’s not a one-year program,” Landrieu said. “If future presidencies and future congresses are wise, they will continue to invest in what is left because $1.2 trillion is a stratospheric amount of money, but we have more to do with time.”
During the Trump administration, the White House repeatedly clashed with inspectors general, removing several watchdogs from their posts as they worked to uncover abuses by senior officials. Biden promised in his State of the Union that he would restore their role.
While inspectors general often review spending after it has occurred, the new guidance instructs agency officials to work with inspectors general as they put in place new spending programs under infrastructure law. It calls for a meeting to discuss “program design, risk mitigation strategies, financial controls, data, monitoring and reporting.”
The White House is also asking agencies to publicly share more details about their spending, which can be difficult to track as it mixes with state and local money. The administration has also asked agencies to ensure neglected communities can access federal money. “These communities often lack adequate resources to navigate the complex federal award processes,” the White House memo states.
Buttigieg opens application for funds to build infrastructure projects
Republicans on the House Transportation Committee wrote to the administration in March, saying they were concerned about the potential for waste and efforts to impose liberal priorities on infrastructure spending. In a statement Friday, Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the Republican panel leader, said he supports the accountability effort.
“Whether members of Congress voted for this bill or not, it is now the law of the land, and the potential for waste, fraud and abuse must be a priority for Congress, especially with the rate high inflation rate of 40 years. already dramatically reducing the value of every infrastructure dollar,” Graves said.
Republicans have repeatedly clashed with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg over a memo aimed at discouraging states from using the money build new highways, notably during a hearing on its departmental budget on Thursday.
“The infrastructure bill did not include any provision preventing states from using highway formula funding for certain types of projects, such as expansions,” said Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican in a transport financing panel. “I think it’s unfortunate that the administration did not follow congressional intent and issue a memorandum that created a lot of confusion.”
While Republicans continue to cite the memo from the highway, the administration says it’s not looking to limit states’ flexibility. In his role in the White House, Landrieu must iron out any differences, linking the states and cities that are ultimately responsible for nearly all infrastructure spending to federal efforts.
Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans and lieutenant governor of Louisiana, said disputes were to be expected but would not be a major hurdle.
“Are you mad at us because we tell you that you can’t build a new road instead of rebuilding an old road? Alright, let’s work on that,” he said. “But aren’t we together on high-speed internet?” Aren’t we together on lead pipes?