Paul Ryan requested stimulus money. But did congressional requests matter?

August 18, 2012

Mary Altaffer/AP

Republican vice presidential pick Paul Ryan is under fire for first requesting money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), or stimulus package, for his congressional district, and then repeatedly denying having done so.

Ryan has finally acknowledged that he did, in fact, request the funds, a request that is in line with his history of requesting federal funds for his district. He was far from alone. As Michael Grunwald notes in his new book on the stimulus, "The New New Deal," 128 House Republicans voted against the stimulus only to request funds from it, including Eric Cantor, John Boehner and Michele Bachmann. But did congressional actors actually affect where stimulus money was distributed?

Yes, though not necessarily in the way you might think. There's little evidence, for instance, that Democrats steered stimulus funds to Democratic-leaning districts. Veronique de Rugy of the libertarian Mercatus Institute published a paper alleging that Democratic districts benefited more, but as Nate Silver noted, the de Rugy paper was riddled with methodological flaws. It's true that the districts receiving the most funds tended to be Democratic, but that's because districts containing the capitals of large states tend to be represented by Democrats.

A followup paper by Georgia State economists Jason Reifler and Jeffrey Lazarus found that, once one controlled for complicating factors such as district poverty rates, whether or not the districts included state capitals or military bases, and so forth, the party of the district representative was not a significant influence on the amount of money received. Reifler and Lazarus conclude: "Stimulus funds are being distributed largely according to the criteria set out in the legislation ... it is unlikely that post-passage pressure from Democrats influences how stimulus money is being distributed." That indicates that requests such as Ryan's didn't have a significant impact.

But that isn't to say that Congress was irrelevant. A study (pdf) by James Feyrer and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth found that while individual senators' seniority levels and committee chairmanships didn't account for variations in stimulus funding received by states, the average seniority of a state's whole congressional delegation was strongly associated with the amount of funds directed to that state. They also found that small states such as Montana and Wyoming got disproportionately large per capita funding, most likely due to the Senate's systemic overrepresentation of small states and to small states' greater infrastructure requirements. The Feyrer/Sacerdote findings are backed up by Reifler and Lazarus, who found that individual House members' seniority was not correlated with stimulus funding.

Whether Ryan's request was appropriate or intellectually consistent is another matter. But the research suggests that his request, and his seniority, probably didn't win his district any unfair advantage.

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Ezra Klein · August 18, 2012