Having fended off the bankers' lobby, at least for the moment, the Senate last week completed work on its emergency jobs bill. Like the version voted earlier by the House, this is a piece of legislation that only a politician could love.
The measure will pay for some jobs--most forms of federal spending do, whether or not they're known as "jobs" bills. Maybe not soon enough or in the right places or at a reasonable cost--but jobs there will be. And some of the money will pay for services desperately needed by the jobless and homeless. But these benefits will be bought at the cost of an enormous overhead in money spent not only for pet projects of dubious merit, but also for purposes that need much more public scrutiny.
Consider, for example, the $125 million bailout for the railroad retirement system. It is true that the railroad pension system is in a state of crisis. It always is. What else can you expect from a system that pays extraordinarily generous benefits to recent and future retirees yet is funded by payroll taxes from a steadily shrinking industry? You might say that the railroads have just the wrong number of employees--too many to run an efficient railroad but too few to support the pensions of those who have already retired. The federal government has been subsidizing railroad pensions for many years, but before it throws another $125 million into the pot, some further discussion of reforms is warranted.
Then there is the extra $1.2 billion in revenue-sharing money for localities. These "no-strings-attached" funds are like manna from Heaven to financially starved cities. Still, before more money is added to it, the whole revenue-sharing program ought to have a thorough going over. At the very least the formula for distributing money--now handed out willy-nilly to every rural and suburban hamlet--needs an overhaul. At best, at a time when what you're really talking about sharing is not federal revenue but federal debt, the whole concept should be reexamined.
It's too late to get a really good jobs bill with the $5 billion or so that's now up for grabs. But there is still hope that some of the rougher edges of the measures passed by the two houses can be smoothed over in conference.