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Track the Stimulus (Decoder Ring Included!)

UPDATE 2/13/2009:
The final version of the bill is up. We've mirrored the multi-megabyte PDF files (thanks to Taxpayers for Common Sense for also providing a copy) since the House Appropriations site is getting hammered.

This is part of ShovelWatch, our joint effort to track the stimulus package with New York's WNYC Radio and public radio show "The Takeaway."

Photo by Flickr User: Tom

Stimulus watchers, join our squadron of citizen journalists. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to dig into the unfolding stimulus package, uncover stories and track how well billions of dollars are being spent in your community.

Your Stimulus Squadron decoder ring, with tips and resources to get you started, are right here. (Don't worry. We won't make you drink any Ovaltine.)

Your first assignment: Dive into the House version (PDF) and the Senate version (PDF) of the stimulus plan, code-named "The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009." Be on the lookout for anything that looks like an earmark. According to a 2007 reform bill, an earmark is any provision that aims spending at a specific program, recipient or congressional district, often at the member's request.

Here is an example (PDF) of what earmarks have looked like in the past. But the stimulus plan, which the White House says contains no earmarks, is different. Projects are described more vaguely.

For example, set your decoder ring to H.R. 1 (aka the House bill) and scroll to p. 139.

This section provides $150 million for the alteration of Coast Guard bridges. Sync that up with the House Appropriations Committee report (PDF) on the bill by searching for the phrase, "Coast Guard." On pages 37 and 38, you'll find a more detailed description of how the fund will be spent. "Currently there are 12 eligible bridges across the United States," it says.

What are those 12? A call to the Coast Guard reveals this list (PDF). What do you know about these bridges? Any accidents? What condition are they in? Check your representative's home page. Has he or she or any other local official talked about getting stimulus money for the district? Let us know.

Next on your list: Page 222 of the House bill indicates that higher education renovations should be prioritized for institutions "affected by a Gulf hurricane disaster." What colleges and universities were damaged by recent hurricanes? Has any member asked for this project in past appropriations bills?

We've done some digging ourselves. Here are some provisions we've flagged in the stimulus bill. There will be more. Keep your eye on amendments. And here are links to other committee reports, which often have more details:

If you see any narrowly defined language -- language that smells like an earmark -- please inform your superiors.

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