(CNSNews.com) - Federal contractors receiving money for projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—the $862 billion economic stimulus law President Barack Obama signed in February 2009—have been encouraged and, in some cases, required by the administration to post signs that say their work is funded by that specific act.
Some congressional Republicans are calling the signs propaganda for the administration and questioning their cost.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development recommended one model sign that included these words: “Funded By: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act/ Barack Obama, President.”
The law itself does not require the signs. The program sprung from a March 2009 directive issued by the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama White House.
“Projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will bear a newly-designed emblem,” said the OMB directive. “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.”
“All projects which are funded by the ARRA should display signage that features the Primary Emblem throughout the construction phase,” said the directive. “The signage should be displayed in a prominent location on site. Some exclusions may apply. The Primary Emblem can also be displayed on signs at events or conferences associated with the ARRA or the individual projects funded by the ARRA. The Primary Emblem should not be displayed at a size less than 6 inches in diameter.”
Many of the ARRA signs already posted say: “Putting America Back to Work.” All cite the name of the law: “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” And the Department of Housing and Urban Development even suggested a model sign that gives Barack Obama personal credit as president for funding the project.
HUD agencies doling out ARRA dollars eventually scaled back their mandate that contractors post the signs and instead simply encouraged them to do so, according to an Aug. 6 review by the HUD Office of Inspector General.
The Commerce Department, however, does require posting of the ARRA signs, and has not rolled back their rules, according to the department's inspector general.
Obama administration officials have said the signs are designed to increase government transparency by showing people how recovery dollars are being spent. But some Republicans are concerned that the signs are a use of taxpayer money to promote President Obama.
“The idea that my constituents think anybody but them is paying for these public works projects is an insult to their intelligence,” Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), told CNSNews.com.
Further, Republicans say that unlike other government signage that can be reused, these signs have a very short half-life since ARRA expires in 2011.
“It’s blatant propaganda on the part of the Obama administration to take credit for the spending of public dollars,” said Schock, who has investigated the matter as a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “It’s propaganda that will be worthless in a matter of years. To think that we can spend $200 million on a bunch of sheet metal signs that will end up in a landfill somewhere is a poor use of public funds at a time when our nation is facing mounting deficits.”
Currently, the actual full cost of all the signs is not known. The Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board, however, is expected to release a report about the cost of the signs by Sept. 1.
In the meantime, Republicans on the oversight committee have gone directly to the states in an effort to determine costs. Thus far, they have found that Ohio has spent $1 million on ARRA signs and Illinois has spent $640,000, Schock said. ABC News reported in July that a stimulus funded project at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport has a 10-foot-by-11-foot ARRA sign that cost $10,000. ABC also reported that Pennsylvania spent $157,000 on ARRA signs.
New York opted not to post signs after estimating a large ARRA sign would cost between $6,000 and $8,300, while Georgia announced it would stop posting the signs because the average sign was costing $1,200, according to a report by the Republican staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Department of Commerce guidance for stimulus fund recipients says, “All projects which are funded by the Recovery Act shall [emphasis added] display signage that features the Primary Emblem throughout the construction phase. The signage should be displayed in a prominent location on site.”
These department guidelines mirror the March 20, 2009 guidance from the Obama White House.
“Agencies awarding stimulus funds are permitted to provide further instructions regarding the sign specifications,” wrote Todd J. Zinser, inspector general for the Department of Commerce in a July 30 letter responding to questions from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“This has resulted in varied signage requirements across the five Commerce bureaus,” the IG’s letter said. “For example, one agency provided specific guidance on the size of the sign, the material used in its construction, and its placement. Another agency required only that there be a sign and that it display the Recovery Act logo.”
The IG letter noted that the law did not require the signs, but rather they were required by regulations issued by the administration.
“Except for a requirement for non-federal employers receiving stimulus dollars to post a whistleblower protection poster on site, there is no statutory requirement in the Recovery Act itself for the posting of signs,” Zinser wrote.
The letter also said, “Finally, our review found no instances in which a bureau had relaxed the Commerce's Recovery Act signage policy requirements [emphasis added] or the implementation of those requirements.”
The Commerce Department is not distinct from other departments, said Shira Kramer, a spokeswoman for the department.
“As I understand it, the OMB instituted guidelines across government for signs,” Kramer told CNSNews.com. “As far as I know, the Commerce guidelines mirror the OMB across the board for the Recovery Act.”
In Schock’s view, there is little difference between HUD’s effort to encourage contractors to post the signs and Commerce’s mandate that they do so.
“I’m less concerned about the perceptions of the policy makers than I am of the grant recipients,” Schock said. “I’ve spoken with recipients in my district who thought that if they did not participate in the promotional signs, recovery money would be less likely.”
He added, “Without a requirement, most units of government would choose to spend that money putting people to work.”
A review by the HUD inspector general’s office stated that in most cases the department encouraged but did not require recovery act signs.
“HUD initially included provisions in the grant agreements requiring posting of signs,” said the review written by Saundra G. Elion, director of the headquarters audit division of the HUD Office of Inspector General. “HUD subsequently issued agency-wide guidance that ‘encouraged’ Recovery Act recipients to post signs.”
The HUD review examined 10 stimulus funded projects: three Native American Housing Block Grant grantees, two Indian Community Development Block Grant grantees and five public housing authorities “to determine whether they were required or encouraged to post signs publicly identifying projects.”
After a change in HUD guidelines, the two Native American programs changed their policy from requiring signs to encouraging signs.
The HUD OIG report says, “In September 2009, shortly after HUD issued its agency-wide guidance, both program officials notified their recipients that posting of signs was no longer mandatory. Instead, they encouraged the recipients to ‘identify HUD Recovery Act funded projects, to the extent possible and reasonable, with clear signage.’”
The IG report says HUD sent an e-mail to recipients of the department’s stimulus dollars that said, “HUD’s policy is to encourage recipients of Recovery Act funds to identify Recovery-funded projects, to the extent possible and reasonable, with clear signage.”
The HUD e-mail, cited in the IG report, included an attachment with two templates for a sign. One included a blank white space where the details of the specific project could be inserted over the words, “Funded By: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; Barack Obama, President.”
The HUD IG report said the HUD decided to only encourage rather than mandate the signs because the administrative efforts necessary to enforce a mandate were too great and because: “While posting signs is normal, it should not be imposed on Recovery Act recipients.”
“While HUD’s published guidance did not require its recipients of Recovery Act funds to post signs identifying projects provided by stimulus funds, it encouraged its Recovery Act recipients do so,” the HUD IG concluded.
HUD as an agency never required the posting of Recovery Act signs, said HUD spokeswoman Andrea Mead.
“There are various existing program in HUD. Those programs include Native American housing programs that did give guidance to grantees early on as a requirement, but clarified that after the HUD agency-wide guidelines were issued,” Mead told CNSNews.com.
HUD traditionally posts a sign near all of its projects, regardless of whether it’s funded through the Recovery Act, Mead said.
“There were never political considerations for HUD,” Mead said. “Posting signs at projects has been our policy for ever and ever and ever. We thought it was extremely important that taxpayers knew where their money was spent. Politics was the farthest thing from our thinking 18 months ago when we started these projects.”
The White House did not respond to requests from CNSNews.com for comment by phone and e-mail.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration also issued guidance to ARRA recipients encouraging but not requiring that signs be posted at job sites.
“On March 3, 2009 President Obama made the commitment that all projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will bear a recovery emblem to make it easier for Americans to see which projects are funded by the ARRA,” the agency’s Web site says. “To meet this commitment, FHWA strongly encourages agencies to use the economic recovery signs on all projects funded by the ARRA.”
How many of President Obama’s signs have been posted at highway projects around the country? “That’s a question for the states,” a Federal Highway Administration spokesman told CNSNews.com. “It would be like asking how many stop signs are out there. We don’t know.” But the spokesman did confirm that the signs themselves are paid for by Recovery Act dollars.
“There is no requirement for a state to use them,” said the spokesman, who did not want his name to be used. “The president believes it is a way of keeping the taxpayers informed about where their dollars are being used.”