Stimulus Numbers: Transparent, Yes. Intelligible? No.

| 6/16/2009 12:32:27 PM

This blog was originally posted on ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom, and licensed under Creative Commons.

One of our goals for tracking the $787 billion stimulus package is figuring out how much each federal agency is actually spending — something that’s trickier than it sounds: The numbers on each agency’s Web site are far from clear, and they don’t always add up with other publicly available figures.

Consider the U.S. Agriculture Department. The department’s Web site dedicated to the stimulus says, “USDA was appropriated $28 billion (3.5 percent) of the package.”

So Congress authorized USDA to spend a total of $28 billion in stimulus funds at some point in the future. But how much of that is actually in the process of getting spent right now? There’s no one clear answer to that.

A stimulus dollar’s journey starts with appropriation in Congress and ends when it’s paid out to a contractor. But the middle part of that equation involves a trek into the murky world of spending terminology. 

Different bureaucratic terms are used for different stages in the process, and different federal agencies seem to use these terms interchangeably. That, coupled with the fact that some federal Web sites are more up to date than others, makes tracking spending — the key to public transparency — equal parts accounting and detective work.

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