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How much voltage is in this stimulus bill?

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 31, 2009 at 5:07 pm |
January 31, 2009 5:07 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

America’s children and unborn grandchildren are on a spending spree. Congress – as it shapes a stupendously expensive stimulus bill – is doing the actual buying.

Because that package will be billed to our children’s credit cards in the form of national debt, we owe it to them to shop judiciously.

So far, that’s not happening. The $819 billion measure that emerged from the House of Representatives last week would be far less expensive if it were stripped down to those provisions that might actually help jump-start the U.S. economy.

The bill has other provisions – including long-term infrastructure investment – that may well deserve passage on their own merits. But the package as passed is anything but focused on the immediate crisis.

A hypothetical example of pure stimulus would be to give all Americans debit cards whose balances would have to be spent within six months – or else forfeited. If $300 billion were distributed this way, roughly $1,000 would be put at the disposal of each person in this country. And it would be spent; virtually all of it would be injected into the economy.

Much as we like highways, bridges and transit, most of the funds Congress proposes to devote to infrastructure projects couldn’t be spent quickly enough to provide an immediate economic boost. The same goes for Pell grants, programs to improve health care quality and efforts to create a green economy.

The ideas may be good, but the country won’t crash if they aren’t immediately enacted.

Likewise, most of the tax cuts Republicans generally prefer wouldn’t accomplish much in the near future. For example, Americans who have jobs won’t go out and spend an income tax reduction that dribbles out paycheck by paycheck. Experience has shown that people who already have money tend to use tax breaks to pay down their debts. And letting companies depreciate equipment purchases more quickly won’t produce instant results, either.

Many such provisions may be worthy of approval as part of a larger economic strategy, but they hardly have to be on the president’s desk two weeks from now.

Rushing so much spending into law with so little deliberation is a virtual guarantee of massive waste and ineffectiveness. The whole effort could wind up discredited if the public sees too few jobs coming from too much spending.

The bill is now before the Senate. Contrary as it is to congressional custom, breaking this package into several smaller bills – focused on short-term jolts, individual and state relief, and far-horizon investments – would be smart and prudent.

Then fast-track the electroshock therapy while saving the five- and 10-year remedies for due deliberation. These may be the last big checks Congress can write for a long time; they shouldn’t be dashed off in a frenzy.

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