Critics of Stimulus Pork or Simply Critics of Government?

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Continuing their roles as scourges of what they see as wasteful earmarks, Republican Senators John McCain (AZ) and Tom Coburn (OK) have issued a report on wasteful projects getting money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion so-called stimulus legislation passed early in 2009. In any large and rushed government expenditure, there are going to be opportunities for critics to take aim at expenditures that don’t look like they’re quite the wisest. Their report, Stimulus Checkup, uncovers the expected kinds of questionable projects that remind us of the “Golden Fleece” awards that the late Senator William Proxmire used to award annually for silly projects. McCain and Coburn do a little of them too, or at least what they consider to be silly, such as a studies by the National Institutes of Health examining the connection of female college students’ alcohol consumption and their proclivity to casual sex (their “hook-up” behavior). Rather than dismissing all of their charges as reflections of Coburn’s well-known social and culture war issues, there are categories of their criticisms that should be addressed:

  • Consistent with Coburn’s effort to exclude these projects from the stimulus, the report takes aim at stimulus expenditures for the arts, such as $225,000 through the National Endowment for the Arts for various Shakespeare festivals, $13,000 for contemporary art sculpture, $400,000 for jazz festivals, and others. Our take is that their criticism of the arts isn’t going to go very far. The importance of the arts to a healthy community cannot be denied.  And if they don’t generate quite as many jobs as shovel-ready highway projects, they are vitally important to the community recovery and reinvestment.
  • They also take aim at some programs such as youth employment programs that don’t seem, according to the two senatorial scourges, to be meeting their targets or purposes. Of course they’re being quite selective, picking on a project or program here or there that isn’t meeting its job targets and not mentioning the many more that are. We would suggest that some of this critique, with the subliminal hand of Coburn’s ideological bearings all too obvious, is the opposition to the increasing scope of federal programs. Not all programs work as desired—anyplace, anytime, regardless of the political party involved—but the various programs that fall short of the mark here and there doesn’t mean that federal government should be shunted aside. Do realize that the performance of for-profit contractors in the stimulus and elsewhere is certainly no better and we’d say, given the financial sector meltdown, generally much worse than that of public programs.
  • More important may be questions about stimulus grants that are really mechanisms to fund projects that wouldn’t have been fundable or funded from non-stimulus or non-emergency appropriations. They’re a little like the famous “bridge to nowhere” earmark that Sarah Palin scored for Alaska, basically investments that might be investments that warrant a “why” or “come on now.” McCain and Coburn know full well that most local politicians will try to find dollars for their projects whenever a new funding program emerges, it’s not a matter of partisan behavior. Be assured that the political promoters of tiny (in the grand scheme of things), questionable projects will be with us forever in a democratic process. It’s up to federal program leaders, members of Congress, and the White House to keep an eye on what are important investments to make and what should be bypassed.
  • Finally, they do raise the question about giving stimulus contracts to firms suspended for suspected fraud. That sounds like a McCain issue, especially since the firms cited in the report were all slimy defense contractors. We suspect, however, that this critique might have been made against many of the for-profit contractors that scarfed up contracts during Katrina, in response to the tsunami, and now the stimulus. The nation should be shedding its over reliance on the Halliburtons and Blackwaters of the world that have consistently misperformed, only to be given oodles more of federal contracts to administer. 

The two senators’ list doesn’t outweigh the much larger amounts of stimulus expenditures that are moving along and doing well, whether or not one believes that they are the absolute best stimulus expenditures the nation could have made. So, don’t get caught up in the ideological peculiarities of Coburn and McCain, but their report contains some stuff that we can all learn from.