Unnecessary, Unwanted, and Wasteful

Remember the stimulus bill? Back in February, Congress debated the package of spending increases and tax cuts that President Obama had proposed to mitigate some of the damage of the recession that had begun in December 2007 and had accelerated into the beginning of his presidency. The debate over the stimulus bill became one of the more tragicomic episodes in recent Congressional history. As part of an ongoing project, I recently asked a research assistant to pull up some of the floor speeches about the stimulus bill. The commentary was even funnier than I remembered. Even though the legislation has long since passed, I cannot resist sharing two observations from reading the transcript.

At one point, all of the Republicans were making a big deal about a funding provision that they said would really be spent on "mouse habitat restoration." Speaker after speaker repeated this attack line, including one representative who complained about "$30 million for a rat in San Francisco." John Boehner (R-OH), the House Minority Leader, also referenced the mouse spending. In addition, however, he offered this gem:
When you look at some of the spending in this bill, it will do nothing about creating jobs in America. Tell me spending $50 million for some salt marsh mouse in San Francisco is going to help a struggling auto worker in Ohio? Tell me how spending $8 billion in this bill to have a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is going to help the construction worker in my district.
I really do not know how a high-speed rail line between LA and Vegas will create construction jobs in Ohio. The congressman has me stumped. Of course, that is one of the most absurd benchmarks for national legislation that I have ever heard. If this were some back-bencher who had no particular reason to do anything but sound like a political hack, that would not be too surprising. This, however, is one of the two highest-ranking Republicans in the country. Surely, we should expect more than mindless gibberish from him. (Note that Boehner was not caught in a slip of the tongue that he has tried to take back. This speech is on his website.)

[As a matter of bipartisanship, I should add that one of the most idiotic statements coming out of Congress this year was uttered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Announcing that he opposed "releasing" prisoners from Gitmo into the U.S., Reid was told by a reporter that no one was talking about releasing prisoners into the general population but rather transferring them into U.S. prisons. Reid's retort: "Can’t put them in prison unless you release them." One must admit that this logic makes Boehner look like the president of Mensa by comparison. But I digress . . .]

While the minority leader in one house of Congress apparently is unaware that national legislation will not always directly affect every congressional district, his party's recent presidential nominee offered an even more stunning and depressing critique of the stimulus bill. Sen. John McCain stated at one point: "I ask to have printed in the Record examples of the House spending provisions and the Senate spending provisions which I find not only questionable but obviously, in the view of any objective observer, unnecessary, unwanted, and, indeed, wasteful." He then put into the record dozens of items from the House bill (a list which began with McCain's description, "Examples of the House Spending Provisions (Are they really 'stimulus?')") and the Senate bill ("Some of the Questionable Funding in the Senate Stimulus Bill") .

Notably, McCain entered his lists into the record without any explanation of why the items had been included. We are thus left to assume that McCain felt that the descriptions alone would make it blindingly obvious that these items are, "in the view of any objective observer, unnecessary, unwanted, and, indeed, wasteful." Here are seven examples taken from the first part of McCain's House list:

* $300 million to provide rebates for buying energy efficient Energy Star products.
* $32 billion for energy and transmission system improvements, including $11 billion for the Smart Grid Investment Program.
* $245 million to upgrade the computer systems at the Farm Service Agency.
* $200 million to repair and modernize U.S. Geological Survey facilities and equipment.
* $10 billion for science facilities and research.
* $3 billion for the National Science Foundation, including $100 million to improve instruction in science, math, and engineering.
* $2 billion for NIH Biomedical Research.

Again, it might be possible to argue that these programs really are wasteful (either in their design or in the amount spent). But are we really ready to draw that conclusion on the basis of these descriptions? Would anything not be on the list?

I frequently lament that it has become impossible for national politicians to have a nuanced debate about policy, but this is of a different character. I have always been willing to imagine that everyone (certainly including "moderates" and "mavericks") would concede that there are some things that the government can do that are both stimulative and in the long-run interest of future economic growth. Based on this transcript, even that last bit of idealism is no longer in the realm of possibility.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan