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What “Belongs” In the Stimulus?

By Matthew Yglesias  

"What “Belongs” In the Stimulus?"

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I saw Senator Ben Nelson (“D”-Nebraska) on teevee earlier today objecting to the fact that the economic recovery plan contains money for things like Pell Grants and other programs Democrats like that, he said, were worthy in their own terms but didn’t “belong in the stimulus plan.” David Brooks offers similar concerns in today’s New York Times column, complaining about “big increases for Pell Grants, alternative energy subsidies and health and entitlement spending” and arguing:

The best course is to return to the original Summers parameters — temporary, targeted and timely — thus making the stimulus cleaner and faster.

Strip out the permanent government programs. Many of them are worthy, but we can have that debate another day.

A few points in response to the Brooks/Nelson objections. One is that this sort of thing really does need to be kept in perspective. The stimulus bill is huge. It’s huge because the macroeconomic situation requires a huge stimulus. The stimulus bill is also multi-faceted. And it needs to be multifaceted because it’s so huge. Targeted tax cuts can be good stimulus, but you can’t do $850 billion of well-targeted tax cuts. Infrastructure can be good stimulus, but you can’t do $850 billion of good infrastructure projects. Long story short, the grab-bag character of the stimulus is a feature rather than a bug. Now, boring down into the bag you can find some specific spending provisions that probably are mistakes. Elsewhere in the piece Brooks singles out Head Start expansion as not such a hot idea. And my understanding is that he’s basically right—it would be better to target early childhood spending on Community Development Block Grants to allow child care services to keep running, and on construction of new facilities for early childhood programs. The existence of these kind of problems are good reason to hope that the Senate version of the bill is improved on these fronts. It’s also a good reason to push the future conference committee to fix these problems. But this is a pretty piece of the overall puzzle. The existence of a handful of sub-optimal provisions in an enormous program does not justify the kind of irresponsibility shown by the House members who voted against the overall package. The House version of the stimulus isn’t perfect, but it’s way better than doing nothing and way better than Jim DeMint’s Dr. Evil stimulus.

Second, with a lot of this stuff whether or not it really “belongs in the stimulus” seems irrelevant to me. If you have a program that actually is worthy, then funding it will make the country better, whether or not it truly “belongs” in the stimulus. If you have a program that’s worthy, and that doesn’t really belong in the stimulus, and you have a Republican who doesn’t think the program is worthy, and he’d be willing to vote for the stimulus if you stripped that program from the bill, then it seems to me that you have a decent case for dropping a worthy program. But if you’re Ben Nelson and you think the program is worthy, then why not just support the worthy program? It’s true that doing so doesn’t fit a perfectly pristine notion of how the legislative process should work, but anytime the process is working in favor of worthy programs rather than crappy ones, that’s a lot better than the normal functioning of the legislative process.

Meanwhile, as Matt Corley observes, there’s a decent case to be made that some of the stuff Nelson objects to—including higher NIH funding and money for Pell Grants—actually are a good use of stimulus funds.

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