By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
January 26, 2009
As Congress rushes toward what leaders of both parties predict will be speedy passage of an $825 billion economic stimulus package, critics from GOP lawmakers to government watchdog groups are questioning whether key parts of the bill will spur economic growth or whether they're wasteful pork.
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana pointed to a $50 million outlay for the National Endowment for the Arts -- an agency that conservatives have long criticized -- to help arts groups hit by a drop-off in philanthropy.
"This is stimulus?" Pence asked.
President Obama, responding to the concerns, is making an aggressive sales pitch for the package. In his first presidential radio address Saturday, he said it would accomplish big things: renovate 10,000 public schools, build 3,000 miles of new electric grid, computerize all Americans' health records in five years, weatherize 2.5 million homes, provide Pell Grants to 7 million college students, and protect the health insurance of 8 million Americans who risk losing coverage during the downturn.
Top administration officials also warn that without the plan, the unemployment rate could hit double digits and the economy could sink deeper into recession.
All sides agree the plan carries a hefty price tag: It will be paid for with borrowed funds and could swell an already mammoth $1.2 trillion deficit forecast for this year to more than $2 trillion.
Obama had hoped to pick up bipartisan support for the plan, but Republicans have grown increasingly critical of the size of the package. GOP leaders also argue that some of the provisions seem more aimed at achieving liberal policy goals rather than reviving the economy.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio criticized a part of the bill's $87 billion package to help states with Medicaid costs that would allow states to expand their family planning services. Leaving a White House meeting with Obama on Friday, Boehner said, "How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?"
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appearing on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, defended the spending. "The family-planning services reduce cost," she said. "The states are in terrible fiscal budget crisis now, and part of it, what we do for children's health, education, and some of those elements, are to help the states meet their financial needs."
When Obama announced this month that there would be no earmarks in the bill, it sharply curtailed the ability of lawmakers to steer money for pet projects in their districts. But critics say the move won't remove politics from the process -- it simply shifts the power to bureaucrats at state and federal agencies, who will distribute billions for roads, schools and other projects.
"In the past, in the appropriations bills we could see a list of the projects. They were right there printed in the bill," said David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group. "Now it's going to be a lot more difficult to see where the money is spent. You will have to contact each agency and each program manager to find out where the money is going."
Obama and Democratic leaders are hoping to allay those concerns by creating a Web site -- www.recovery.gov -- where the public can track how the money is being spent.
Some of the biggest winners in the package are federal agencies, which would see a huge infusion of money. The Social Security Administration would get $400 million to replace its 30-year old computer system. The Agricultural Research Service would receive $209 million for deferred maintenance at its facilities. The General Services Administration would get $600 million to replace its older fleet of vehicles with new alternative-fuel cars and trucks.
Democrats say their goal is to create jobs by speeding up work on federal and state projects that would otherwise have waited years for funding.
"The whole idea here is there are lots of projects that have been in the pipeline, on the planning boards, and we're saying, let's get it now," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said.
The House, with its sizable Democratic majority, is expected to easily pass the bill on Wednesday. In the Senate, Democrats are confident they can pick up the one or two Republican votes needed to reach a 60-vote majority.
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