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San Diego Representatives Want More Spending Oversight

Audio

Aired 4/20/09

Two San Diego area Congressmen who opposed the stimulus bill say they are working hard to sure the money is spent properly. Democrats are crying foul, but the Republicans say they are just protecting taxpayer's dollars. Matt Laslo reports from Washington.

At a recent hearing Vista Congressman Darrell Issa told his Democratic counterparts he was putting politics aside. He is now the highest ranked Republican on the oversight committee. With C-span rolling Issa spoke in bi-partisan tones.

"This committee has sometimes held high profile hearings in which gotcha politics has occurred. I take the blame for the Republican side," Issa says. "I know the chairman feels that a new era feels that his side may have had the same problem. Those days are behind us."

But less than three hours later Issa and other Republicans went their own way. They announced the formation of a Republican group whose stated goal is to add additional oversight of the stimulus package. While the group has a website, it doesn't have subpoena power. But Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution says it is unlikely to make a difference.

"There's of course oversight from all the regular committees of Congress that are involved in these programs, and you can now add one more layer. But of course it's more likely a public relations layer," Hess says.

Not a single Republican in the House voted for the stimulus bill. But now many, like Issa, are trying to take the lead on watching over its spending. Issa his constituent's still can't believe how large the bill is.

"We have just taken trillion of dollars, $800-billion in one bill alone, and thrown it at people who in many cases we need to question why we are giving them money," Issa says.

Imperial Beach Republican Brian Bilbray is also on the Oversight committee. He says his experience as a city councilman and then mayor taught him that federal agencies don't work well with local officials and those local officials are now in charge of spending the bulk of the stimulus money.

"There is gonna be conflict. I have seen conflict on every federally funded project ever seen. Now this is gonna be so big, so many places, and with so many places and with so much impact that the potential for major misappropriations of funds is huge here," Bilbray says. "That's why those of us on oversight have to be ahead of the curve."

Democrats in Congress don't want to be tainted with anything like city hall's corruption scandal of two thousand five. So the White House has put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of its oversight. San Diego's Bob Filner says Democrats are doing enough and Republicans are just getting in the way.

"They don't want it to work so they are just trying to figure out some way to say it's not gonna work," Filner says.

San Diego officials expect to get at least twenty four million dollars for things like making buildings energy efficient and also improving its roads and bridges. But many lawmakers worry Sacramento are in charge of doling out San Diego's stimulus money. Filner says that's why federal officials are working to stay on top of the spending.

"Some people can get hurt in this process - you know Los Angles exercises its power and San Diego doesn't get what it should Or urban verses rural. So I hope it's very closely watched," Filner say.

Melanie Sloan is with the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She says it was a mistake for lawmakers to assume local officials would keep watch of their own stimulus spending.

"One thing that I think that we're not funding enough of are inspector generals - there should be more of them. There should be more people with accounting experience in all of the agencies making sure that all the money that is being doled out those agencies is being well spent at the local level," Sloan says.

Issa has sponsored a bill to create a bi-partisan regulatory commission. Sloan says Republicans are just using the stimulus bill to win back the majority. But Issa says he's part of the checks and balances on Democrats in power.

"I'm not gonna tolerate the fact that the speaker left out any overt oversight the way it should have been,"  Issa says.

Lawmakers from both parties are trying to keep watch over the stimulus bill. Democrats know their party will be unpopular if the money is wasted. And Republicans see the bill as a way to win back the majority. Just as voting on the bill became a partisan battle, so now has the oversight of it. At the very least that means there is no shortage of Washington eyes keeping watch on local spending.

From Capitol News Connection in Washington, I'm Matt Laslo FOR KPBS News.

Stay tuned to KPBS. Later this morning on These Days, we speak with San Diego Congressmen Brian Bilbray and Bob Filner about how best to use the stimulus package. These Days starts at nine.

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