Commentary Magazine


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How Bad?

Just how bad is the stimulus plan? Pretty bad, as the Wall Street Journal documents:

There’s $1 billion for Amtrak, the federal railroad that hasn’t turned a profit in 40 years; $2 billion for child-care subsidies; $50 million for that great engine of job creation, the National Endowment for the Arts; $400 million for global-warming research and another $2.4 billion for carbon-capture demonstration projects. There’s even $650 million on top of the billions already doled out to pay for digital TV conversion coupons.

In selling the plan, President Obama has said this bill will make “dramatic investments to revive our flagging economy.” Well, you be the judge. Some $30 billion, or less than 5% of the spending in the bill, is for fixing bridges or other highway projects. There’s another $40 billion for broadband and electric grid development, airports and clean water projects that are arguably worthwhile priorities.

Add the roughly $20 billion for business tax cuts, and by our estimate only $90 billion out of $825 billion, or about 12 cents of every $1, is for something that can plausibly be considered a growth stimulus. And even many of these projects aren’t likely to help the economy immediately. As Peter Orszag, the President’s new budget director, told Congress a year ago, “even those [public works] that are ‘on the shelf’ generally cannot be undertaken quickly enough to provide timely stimulus to the economy.”

And on and on it goes:

Another “stimulus” secret is that some $252 billion is for income-transfer payments — that is, not investments that arguably help everyone, but cash or benefits to individuals for doing nothing at all. . . .As for the promise of accountability, some $54 billion will go to federal programs that the Office of Management and Budget or the Government Accountability Office have already criticized as “ineffective” or unable to pass basic financial audits. These include the Economic Development Administration, the Small Business Administration, the 10 federal job training programs, and many more. Oh, and don’t forget education, which would get $66 billion more. That’s more than the entire Education Department spent a mere 10 years ago and is on top of the doubling under President Bush.

It is hard to conclude that the Democrats were actually trying to meet the President’s stated goals. There is little wonder that the President and Democrats want this voted on fast. If lawmakers, not to mention the public, figure out what’s in this they might have second thoughts. If they slow down and actually read what is in the bill, they could get the idea this is essentially one big political payoff, not a serious economic plan – and certainly not one that is targeted or temporary, as Democrats promised. (This might account for the administration’s failure to make the bill accessible despite promises of “transparency.”)

Despite the feel-good meeting with the President, the House Democrats’ bill is barreling ahead and is expected to come up for a vote on Wednesday. What will Republicans do? Based on conversations with those on the Hill close to the leadership, I would be surprised if the bill attracted more than a dozen votes.  There may only be a handful of “yes” votes. The reaction to both the process and the content of the bill has been uniformly harsh on the GOP side. The President and Nancy Pelosi have, frankly, given the Republicans no reason to vote for the bill. So most will oppose.

What about those Democrat Blue Dogs who are supposed to be concerned about fiscal discipline? One Republican adviser was blunt, “They are all bark and no bite, and they always cave to Pelosi in the end even though the media always gives them credit for talking a good game.” We’ll see if some of the Democrats in competitive seats have the nerve to go up against the new President. I’m betting only a handful do.

So in the end it will certainly not be a bipartisan effort. If “bipartisan” has any meaning, it must entail a measure that attracts a substantial portion, if not a majority, of the other party. This clearly will not.

So after all the happy talk we likely will have a very bad bill passed on a near strict party-line vote. Not exactly the dawning of a new age in responsible, bipartisan government.