Friday, February 20, 2009

The RAT hiding deep inside the stimulus bill

Byron York
The far-reaching -- and potentially dangerous -- provision that no one knows about.

You've heard a lot about the astonishing spending in the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, signed into law this week by President Barack Obama. But you probably haven't heard about a provision in the bill that threatens to politicize the way allegations of fraud and corruption are investigated — or not investigated — throughout the federal government. The provision, which attracted virtually no attention in the debate over the 1,073-page stimulus bill, creates something called the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board — the RAT Board, as it's known by the few insiders who are aware of it. The board would oversee the in-house watchdogs, known as inspectors general, whose job is to independently investigate allegations of wrongdoing at various federal agencies, without fear of interference by political appointees or the White House.

In the name of accountability and transparency, Congress has given the RAT Board the authority to ask "that an inspector general conduct or refrain from conducting an audit or investigation." If the inspector general doesn't want to follow the wishes of the RAT Board, he'll have to write a report explaining his decision to the board, as well as to the head of his agency (from whom he is supposedly independent) and to Congress. In the end, a determined inspector general can probably get his way, but only after jumping through bureaucratic hoops that will inevitably make him hesitate to go forward.

When Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, a longtime champion of inspectors general, read the words "conduct or refrain from conducting," alarm bells went off. The language means that the board — whose chairman will be appointed by the president — can reach deep inside a federal agency and tell an inspector general to lay off some particularly sensitive subject. Or, conversely, it can tell the inspector general to go after a tempting political target.

"This strikes at the heart of the independence of inspectors general," Grassley told me this week, in a phone conversation between visits to town meetings in rural Iowa. "Anytime an inspector general has somebody questioning his authority, it tends to dampen the aggressiveness with which they pursue something, particularly if it's going to make the incumbent administration look bad."

I asked Grassley how he learned that the RAT Board was part of the stimulus bill. You'd think that as a member of the House-Senate conference committee, he would have known all about it. But it turns out Grassley's office first heard about the provision creating the RAT Board last Wednesday, in a tip from a worried inspector general. It wasn't until Friday morning — after the bill was finished and just hours before the Senate was to begin voting — that Grassley discovered the board was in the final text. "This was snuck in," Grassley told me. "It wasn't something that was debated."

Snuck in by whom? It's not entirely clear. "I intend to get down to the bottom of where this comes from," Grassley vowed. "And quite frankly, it better not come from this administration, because this administration has reminded us that it is not about business as usual, that it is for total transparency."

Maybe not this time. When I inquired with the office of a Democratic senator, one who is a big fan of inspectors general, I was told the RAT Board was "something the Obama administration wanted included in this bill." When I asked the White House, staffers told me they'd look into it. So for now, at least, there's been no claim of paternity.

The RAT Board has all sorts of other things wrong with it. For one thing, it's redundant; there is already a board through which inspectors general police themselves, created last year in the Inspectors General Reform Act. For another thing, it could complicate criminal investigations stemming from inspector general probes. And then there's the question of what it has to do with stimulating the economy.

But none of that matters now. It's the law.

Last Friday, when he learned the RAT Board was in the final bill, Grassley wanted to voice his objections on the Senate floor. But there was no time in the rush to a vote, so Grassley's statement went unread. "It's fitting that the acronym for this board is RAT," he was prepared to tell the Senate, "because that's what I smell here."

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at His stories and blogs can be read daily at

And more:

Stimulus Mousetrap

By INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY | Posted Thursday, February 19, 2009 4:20 PM PT

Environment: The controversy over the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse goes on. It's not in the stimulus bill per se, but protecting its habitat is. And protecting critters' habitats has hurt the economy, cost lives and lost jobs.

The Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse is an endangered rodent. About an inch tall, it has a life span of up to a year. It's found in the marshes around San Francisco Bay, including some in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's district.

The $30 million said to be in the stimulus bill for it is actually the total amount the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, listed for various projects on its wish list. That list was submitted to various federal agencies for "shovel-ready" projects.

There are five ongoing wetlands restoration projects on the list. Steve Ritchie, a Coastal Commission staff member who helped draw up the list, says the projects would benefit dozens of species, including salmon, egrets and, yes, the mouse that roared. Those projects, he says, mean "at least 100 new jobs."

But are they really jobs or "make-work" projects? Jobs are what you get up and go to every day, year after year. Once these wetlands are "restored" or the stimulus money is spent, what happens then? How does restored mouse habitat boost GDP?

In the name of saving wetlands and other critter habitats, much harm to people has been done. It was the Army Corps of Engineers, ironically, that had a "shovel-ready" project to build floodgates to keep water from the Gulf of Mexico from pouring into Lake Pontchartrain on the north side of New Orleans.

Save Our Wetlands, the environmental group that successfully sued in 1977, claimed the floodgates proposed by the corps would spoil wetlands. We ask: Was the damage to the city of New Orleans, its people, and the nation's economy by Katrina worth it?

Four trapped firefighters, fighting a blaze in Washington State, burned to death July 10, 2001 as permission to draw water from the nearby Chewuch River was withheld for nine hours by officials fearful that protected salmon and trout might get scooped up.

Protection of critter habitat has prevented the clearing of brush that has fueled devastating fires in California, Australia and elsewhere, destroying jobs and lives while producing, ironically, crispy critters. In the name of animal protection, we've blocked construction of everything from highways to hospitals.

If you want to protect critter habitat, do it in the regular budget process where the pluses and minuses can and should be debated. Don't sneak it into a stimulus bill.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. We've all been robbed.