Democrats Among Stimulus Skeptics
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Republican criticism of the stimulus package that the House will vote on tonight has focused on its soaring price tag, but some Democrats on Capitol Hill and other administration supporters are voicing a separate critique: that the plan may fall short in its broader goal of transforming the American economy over the long term.
President Obama, who promoted the $825 billion package at the Capitol yesterday, says the proposal serves two functions -- creating jobs and stimulating the economy in the short term, and laying the groundwork for overhauls in energy, health care and infrastructure that would be felt for decades. But some administration supporters say that while they appreciate Obama's intent, the two goals are competing with each other, and that the package could end up missing both targets.
In testimony before the House Budget Committee yesterday, Alice M. Rivlin, who was President Bill Clinton's budget director, suggested splitting the plan, implementing its immediate stimulus components now and taking more time to plan the longer-term transformative spending to make sure it is done right.
"Such a long-term investment program should not be put together hastily and lumped in with the anti-recession package. The elements of the investment program must be carefully planned and will not create many jobs right away," said Rivlin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. The risk, she said, is that "money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted."
For some House Democrats, the problem is less a matter of balancing the short and long term than a shortage of focus and will on the part of the administration. Their disappointment centers on the relatively small amount devoted to long-lasting infrastructure investments in favor of spending on a long list of government programs. While each serves a purpose, the critics say, they add up to less than the sum of their parts, and fall far short of the transformative New Deal-like vision many of them had entertained.
The bill to be voted on today includes $30 billion for roads and bridges, $9 billion for public transit and $1 billion for inter-city rail -- less than 5 percent of the package's total spending. Administration officials have said they did not push for more infrastructure spending because of concerns about how many projects are "shovel ready" -- a view that House members say is held most strongly by Lawrence H. Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser.
Even though most House Democrats say they will back the plan, many reject the administration's argument, saying that infrastructure projects could easily be expedited, that the economy will need additional infusions for years to come and that the real reason for shunning infrastructure was to make room for tax cuts. Obama, with a public mandate to do something big, is missing a rare opportunity to rebuild the country, they say.
"Every penny of the $825 billion is borrowed against the future of our kids and grandkids, and so the question is: What benefit are we providing them? What are we doing for the country? It's the difference between real investment that will serve the nation for 30, 50 years and tax cuts, and that's a very poor tradeoff," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.). "I go to my district and people say, 'Yeah, I can use 10 extra bucks a week, but I would rather see more substantial investment.' We've gone through a couple bubbles that were borrowing and consumer-driven. We want a recovery that's solid and based in investment and productivity, and that points us at building things that will serve us decades to come."
Even some Republicans echo the call for more infrastructure spending, saying they would be more willing to support the bill if it showed more tangible and focused benefits, instead of being scattered across an array of existing programs. Rep. John L. Mica (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the transportation committee, called the proposed infrastructure spending "almost minuscule" and expressed regret that the administration had not crafted its plan around an ambitious goal such as building high-speed rail in 11 corridors around the country, which Mica said would cost $165 billion.
"They keep comparing this to Eisenhower, but he proposed a $500 billion highway system, and they're going to put $30 billion" in roads and bridges, he said. "How farcical can you be? Give me a break."
Administration officials and defenders of the stimulus package say that the plan should be seen as just a start of Obama's priorities, and that there will be chances to do more later, such as in the five-year transportation bill that will come before Congress this year.
"While many of the projects are a down payment on long-term goals, including energy policy reform, health-care reform and the expansion of infrastructure investment, the goal has never been to accomplish every legislative goal in one fell swoop," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.