In the 18 months following approval of President Obama’s stimulus package, the Department of Transportation required recipients of government funds to post placards touting the economic recovery. As a result, signs prominently featuring the recovery act logo appeared everywhere — by the side of the road, in public transportation stations, as bumper stickers on government vehicles.
Then, abruptly, on July 15, the Department of Transportation relaxed its requirements. No longer would government agencies require grant recipients to mount the by-then-familiar signs: They would simply encourage them to do so. The White House website was updated to reflect the change — and, seemingly, to give the impression that signs had never actually been required.
It might just have been a coincidence, but, shortly before the shift in policy, on June 24, Rep. Darrell Issa (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Government Oversight Committee, asked the DOT inspector general to look into the administration’s use of the signs. That request was part of a larger investigation into White House propaganda use.
The inspector general responded last week: “According to DOT officials, posting signs is consistent with [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] … transparency and accountability requirements as it allows the public to immediately identify how Recovery Act funds are being used.”
In other words, the signs aren’t propaganda; they’re a part of the president’s promised open government. But the original requirements didn’t simply mandate the presence of a sign — they also discouraged the presence of equally prominent signs.
Take Federal Railroad Administration requirements as an example.
“Grantees may elect to have a secondary project sign which identifies other project partners … but such secondary project signs should be smaller and less prominent than [the] ARRA Project Sign,” the FRA stipulated. “An ARRA Project Sign must be located adjacent to each placement of such a secondary project sign.”
Then, too, if the signs were meant solely to enhance transparency, why relax the requirements now? The inspector general’s report doesn’t provide an answer.
Ultimately, the recent policy change will not alter the impact of the signs. As Johnathan Strong of the Daily Caller pointed out in an Aug. 19 article, much of the stimulus funding has already gone out the door — and the effect of strong encouragement from the government will quite probably be equivalent to the effect of a requirement.
“Although agencies are for the first time relaxing requirements to build the signs, some of their still-standing ‘encouragement’ comes pretty close,” Strong wrote. “Under the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, recipients of airport grants are ‘required’ to ‘strongly encourage the prime contractor’ — the party completing the work of the project — to post the signs. Because contractors typically produce work to the specifications of their clients, it is unclear in what situation such ‘strong’ encouragement would result in the signs not being built.”
But, even if the policy shift effectively matters little, it still provides important insight into the original intention behind the signs. As an explanation, “transparency” falls a little flat. Much more probable that government agencies placed the signs to promote the president and a questionable economic policy.
Tina Korbe is a reporter in the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.