Buried deep inside a federal newsletter on March 16 was something called a "notice of solicitation of comments" from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor.
"BLS is responsible for developing and implementing the collection of new data on green jobs," said the note in the Federal Register, which is widely read by government bureaucrats and almost never seen by the general public. But the notice said there is "no widely accepted standard definition of 'green jobs.'" To help find that definition, the Labor Department asked that readers send in suggestions.
The notice came only after the department scoured studies from government, academia and business in search of a definition. "The common thread through the studies and discussions is that green jobs are jobs related to preserving or restoring the environment," the notice said. Beyond that blinding insight, a precise definition has eluded Labor Department officials.
On Capitol Hill, a staffer for Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was poring through the Federal Register and spotted the note. Then he went to the Department of Labor website, where he found a number of announcements like these:
-- U.S. Department of Labor Announces $100 Million in Green Jobs Training Through Recovery Act
-- U.S. Department of Labor Announces $150 Million in "Pathways Out of Poverty" Training Grants for Green Jobs
-- U.S. Department of Labor Announces Nearly $190 Million in State Energy Sector Partnership and Training Grants for Green Jobs
In the staffer's mind, two and two came together. The Labor Department is shoving money out the door for "green jobs," yet at the same time is admitting it doesn't know what a "green job" is.
Cue Grassley, a longtime watchdog of funny business in the federal bureaucracy. In a June 2 letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Grassley noted that there was an enormous amount of money in the $862 billion stimulus bill for those still-undefined green jobs.
"According to the administration, the Recovery Act contains more than $80 billion in clean-energy funding to promote economic recovery and develop clean-energy jobs," Grassley wrote. "However, it has come to my attention that the (Labor Department) is just now attempting to define what a 'green job' is. Interestingly, this comes more than a year after the Recovery Act was signed into law and after millions of dollars in funding have already been distributed for green jobs."
Since the Labor Department is looking for a definition after spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on green jobs, Grassley asked, then what definition of green jobs did it use when it spent the money? The question applies beyond the Labor Department. What about all the other government agencies that are spending zillions on green jobs? They don't have a widely accepted definition, either.
Grassley voted against the stimulus. But since it passed, he wants to hold the administration accountable for the money. "This inquiry is a measure of oversight to make sure the money is spent the way supporters of the legislation said it would be spent," he says. "I'm asking how the administration is distributing the money for what it said would go to clean-energy jobs. If the criteria were too broad or poorly defined, the money might be going for other kinds of spending."
So far, the Labor Department has not yet responded to Grassley, and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, even as it searches for the definition of a green job, the Labor Department is assuring Congress that everything is going gangbusters on the green-job front. "The demand for green-job training opportunities is enormous," Solis told a Senate committee in March, adding that the Labor Department had by that time already spent $500 million on green jobs, with more to come. "The department has been unable to keep pace with the record number of applications for grants."
Last year, Republicans complained that the Obama administration planned to spend billions on an ill-defined concept of green jobs. Now, billions have been spent, and many more will be spent, and the administration still can't tell you what a green job is. Just look at the Federal Register.
President Obama says he values accountability. How about accounting for those green-job billions?