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Here's What $800 Billion Buys Today

The final stimulus package is the final insult to taxpayers

Veronique de Rugy
February 13, 2009

The final version of the stimulus bill is ready to be voted on by the House and the Senate.

Here's the good news: The $246 million tax credit to Hollywood that made its way to the initial House bill and was removed in the Senate version didn't make it to the final bill.

That's pretty much it for the good news.

Total spending amounts to $792 billion, with $570 billion in direct spending and $212 billion in tax provisions. These numbers don't include the massive amount of interest that will accrue on the increased debt. If we include that, the total amount comes to $1.14 trillion.

Supporters of the package describe the legislation as transportation and infrastructure investment, the idea being to use new spending to put America back to work while at the same time fixing decrepit infrastructure. However, only 17 percent of the discretionary spending in this package is for infrastructure items. More worrisome still, the final version lacks any mechanism to ensure that spending will be targeted toward infrastructure projects with high economic returns.

The conference report dedicates 30 percent of all discretionary spending to 33 new programs totaling $95 billion and expands 73 programs which are normally part of the regular appropriations process by $92 billion.

In one interesting twist, the conference committee dropped many of the prohibitions included in the version passed by the Senate. These prohibitions were the result of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) last week. The Senate voted 73-24 to prohibit wasteful or low-priority spending items from the bill. The amendment read as follows:

None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.

However, the conference version includes the following provision, which drops many of the prohibitions from that list.

SEC. 1604. none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available in this Act may be used by any State or local government, or any private entity for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, or swimming pool.

So now funds can go to museums, stadiums, arts centers, theaters, parks, or highway beautification projects. Most significantly, this reopens the door for many of the projects on the U.S. Conference of Mayors' wish list of "shovel ready" projects that includes many items that are nothing but waste and pork, such as doorbells, construction of dog parks, replacement of street lights, and money for a "mob museum."

To get a sense of what made it through the supposedly thorough "scrubbing" process, consider the following povisions:

On the tax side of the package, the tax credit for golf carts was retained, along with $300 million for Federal Employee Company Cars. And despite the role that home buying played in putting the economy into recession, the conference report also includes tax credits—up to $15,000—for buying new homes.

Perhaps the worst part, however, appears in Section 1607 of the final bill. This section essentially says that if a governor refuses to accept stimulus funds allocated to his or her state, the state legislature can override the governor's decision by passing a concurrent resolution. It means that governors, such as South Carolina's Gov. Mark Sanford, who have said that they would not accept the money, could be overridden by their state legislative bodies.

It's a terrible bill, in other words, both on its face and in the details. For the reasons I detailed here, it won't stimulate the economy. It violates many of President Obama's promises. Most of the deals that created it were made behind closed doors, meaning that there is virtually zero transparency and no real way to track where, how, or why money is being spent. On top of that, the bill is still packed with items that any vaguely impartial observer would call pork.

But once it hits Obama's desk, we'll be calling it the law.

Veronique de Rugy is a columnist at Reason magazine and an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Veronique de Rugy is Senior Research Fellow


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