Some of the areas the president wants to prime again have nothing to show from last year. Take high-speed rail projects. The last stimulus bill provided $8 billion for them, yet the first of those dollars won’t be spent until this year, more than 12 months after passage.
In his speech at the Brookings Institution, Mr. Obama acknowledged that infrastructure stimulus was off to a slow start, but he said that was a feature, not a bug. The delays were intentional, he said. “It was planned that way for two reasons: so the impact would be felt over a two-year period and, more importantly, because we wanted to do it right.”
Perhaps, but if the president actually believes that these projects will boost economic growth and job creation, this “planned” delay seems surprisingly callous toward the millions of workers who lost their jobs and the tens of thousands of families whose homes went into foreclosure during that period.
As for the desire to “do it right,” it appears that the planned snail’s pace was still too brisk. Journalists and whistleblowers have uncovered hundreds of instances of laugh-out-loud wasteful projects given a green light under the stimulus. Sens. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, released a long list of dubious stimulus spending, including $350 million for a broadband map that duplicates existing maps, a $5 million thermal energy award to a largely vacant shopping mall, $1.57 million for fossil research in Argentina and $50,000 to underwrite an anti-capitalist puppet show.
It’s enough to make a taxpayer wonder if Congress and the president really care whether stimulus spending works, or if their major interest is in greasing the palms of powerful construction and transportation lobbies and their associated unions.
Whatever the motivation, one thing is clear: Last year’s stimulus represented a giant expansion of federal stakeholding in the economy. Congress’ willingness to run a trillion-dollar-plus deficit gives the feds a greater presence in the economy than at any time since World War II. How long before they try to use fear of that ever-growing deficit as an excuse to ram through massive tax increases?
• Ronald D. Utt is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.