On NBC, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), said she wanted the bill to have more spending on infrastructure, but she wanted it to be on military infrastructure, even though much of that winds up as scrap metal in Iraq and Afghanistan, not bridges and schoolhouses in the United States.
She said she would strip from the bill all the "social spending that is not going to create jobs," but when pressed by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), her on-air debating partner, she agreed to preserve some social spending, such as unemployment benefits. The effect of this exchange was to leave Hutchison sounding as though she made up her position as she went along.
Very little of these discussions addressed the principle underlying the stimulus bill. The idea is that when the private sector withdraws from the economy by cutting back on capital spending and laying off workers, it is up to the government to take up the slack, if necessary via deficit spending.
This isn't radical thinking. It's endorsed by, among others, Martin Feldstein, who was Ronald Reagan's chief economic advisor and is consistently voted by his peers as the Economist Least Likely to be Mistaken for a Democrat. Feldstein opposes most of the tax cuts favored by the GOP, especially business tax cuts. To be fair, he isn't entirely enamored of President Obama's proposal -- he thinks it should spend more on programs that will produce more short-term employment and less on open-ended programs.
Yet the plan before the Senate includes hundreds of billions of dollars in near-term programs and projects. There's $90 billion for school construction and renovation and educational grants and $79 billion for state educational programs, most of which would be spent within two years. Of the $27 billion for highway construction, most would be spent within four years.
The bill also appropriates billions for the kind of forward-looking projects we've neglected during the last two decades, such as broadband infrastructure, water and anti-pollution programs, and alternative energy research, which will produce long-term economic benefits for the entire country.
Is it possible to slip pork into a bill this massive? Well, duh. But pork is often in the eye of the beholder. House Republicans this week released a list of $19 billion in provisions they called "wasteful" (i.e., 2% of the total package). But the list includes numerous projects that many Americans would support and that would plainly stimulate our limping construction and manufacturing sectors. For example, the purchase of new computers and vehicles for federal agencies, the building of fire stations and other public facilities, and the upgrade of rail lines.
Is this the best the GOP can come up with? Or are Republicans just determined to undermine the recovery effort? It's hard to disagree with Obama's complaint that "modest differences" over the package are being inflated to stall the whole program.