Senate Democrats said Tuesday that President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus program needs to be fixed to ensure money is spent more quickly and on projects that will provide a faster boost to the economy.
They expressed their concern even as Mr. Obama warned that unemployment will continue to rise, and as a Washington Times analysis shows the states that have lost the most jobs this year are receiving less money per capita from the stimulus bill than states that are doing relatively well.
“I learned a long time ago on the farm: You don’t fertilize a tree from the top down,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services. “Too much of this is going to the top, and you have to put it in down at the bottom. The more we can put into the bottom and let it percolate up, that’s the best way.”
The Democrats criticizing the stimulus program say they do not support a second stimulus bill, but argue that the first package passed in February should be implemented more efficiently.
A Washington Times analysis found that the four states receiving the most stimulus money per capita - Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana - have all seen unemployment increases of less than seven-tenths of a percent since the beginning of this year.
Meanwhile, West Virginia, where the unemployment rate has jumped 3.3 percentage points since January, ranks 22nd in per capita stimulus money, while Oregon and Michigan, which have seen 2.5 percentage point unemployment increases this year, rank 32nd and 36th.
Mr. Harkin said he continues to support Mr. Obama’s plan but has “some reservations about exactly how it was shaped,” and said Congress might need to redirect some of the stimulus money to improve its effect on the economy.
Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, said the money needs to be spent faster and more efficiently.
“I don’t know if you have to go back and change the funding, but there are some areas where they need to get the bureaucracy to move more quickly on things such as regulations and rules to get the money out faster,” he said.
Mr. Nelson cited the stimulus money targeted for broadband services to provide greater access to high-speed Internet connections.
“I’m told from local folks that they want to get that money but the rules are holding it back,” he said. “It’s also quite Byzantine, even when the rules are put out.”
While being pitched as a jobs-creation and jobs-preservation program, the stimulus money is not being spent with an eye toward helping states that have been hardest hit by the economic downturn this year.
A spokesman said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, had no comment on the calls for revisiting the stimulus package, but other Democrats said that, rather than reopening the bill, the administration should try to make whatever adjustments it can.
“If we can do things that are consistent with getting our economy back on track, targeting the money better, we should,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat. “There is a lot discretion, though, in the use of the stimulus money. Oversight is probably our most effective way of doing it.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said that by his calculations stimulus spending is ahead of target and should be given a chance to work. Mr. Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law in mid-February.
“We are not finished the second quarter of the recovery act at this point in time, and it is clearly going to take some time for the full effect to be felt,” he said.
A CBS News poll released Monday found that Americans are not convinced the stimulus spending is helping. Of those surveyed, 60 percent said the stimulus hasn’t had any effect at all, 15 percent said it has made the economy worse and 21 percent said the spending plan has improved the economy.
Still, 42 percent said they think the stimulus will benefit the economy over the long run.
At the beginning and end of June, Mr. Obama demanded that federal agencies speed up the funding.
“I don’t feel satisfied with the progress that we’ve made,” he said at a June 23 press conference. “We’ve got to get our recovery act money out faster. We’ve got to make sure that the programs that we’ve put in place are working the way they’re supposed to.”
The pace of spending has not increased. The figures on Recovery.gov - the administration’s official Web site to track spending - show spending has held fairly steady at about $4 billion a week since the end of May.
Recovery.gov shows as of July 3, the most recent date for which figures are provided, $60.4 billion of the $787 billion has been spent, though $174.9 billion has been designated.
Despite that, Mr. Obama said this weekend that the spending “has worked as intended.” He tried to assuage anxious Democrats by telling them he’d always known the money would be released slowly.
“This is a plan that will also accelerate greatly throughout the summer and the fall. We must let it work the way it’s supposed to, with the understanding that in any recession, unemployment tends to recover more slowly than other measures of economic activity,” he said in his Saturday radio address.
Republicans said Mr. Obama’s complacency begged comparisons to President George W. Bush’s rosy assessments of the Iraq war.
“That sounds an awful lot to me like ‘Mission accomplished,’ and President Bush was held accountable for that,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, told reporters at the Capitol. “I think President Obama should be held accountable for this.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the Republicans appeared to be committed to a defeat.
“The party of ‘no’ never fails to deliver an entertaining tune: ‘no’ to economic recovery, ‘no’ to creating jobs and ‘no’ to taking responsibility for eight years of failed policies,” spokesman Drew Hammill said.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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