'We're Making This Up As We Go'


Has any story beginning with the phrase "a bipartisan group of senators" ever been good news? The New York Times reports that "a bipartisan group of senators worked furiously in backroom negotiations on Thursday to cut the cost of the more than $920 billion economic stimulus package." The product of this furious work will be completely haphazard and arbitrary, at best producing a total figure somewhere between $819 billion (the estimated cost of the House bill) and $920 billion, with no rhyme or reason to what is cut and what is left in. "We're trying to focus it on spending that truly helps stimulate the economy," says Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "People have different views on whether or not a program meets that test."

No kidding. Take the $1 billion that President Obama wants to revive Bill Clinton's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, under which the federal government pays the salaries of local police officers. You might think this appropriation would fail the stimulation test, since police departments presumably will not simply grab warm bodies off the street, hand them badges and guns, and put them to work on the thin blue line. Given the time required for training, it seems unlikely that the money for new cops would make its way into the economy in time to save us from the recession. Yet Sen. Patrick Leahy claims the COPS money would stimulate the economy "as fast as, or faster than, other spending" (which is probably true, since the other spending includes construction projects that won't be done until 2017). He notes that "in police hiring, nearly 100 percent of the money goes to creating jobs," which he says is "particularly important in the current economic crisis, since many police departments are already reporting increases in crime and cuts in their budgets and their forces." Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, adds that "from an economic stimulus standpoint, if you can use new police to stabilize a neighborhood, consolidate crime-reduction gains, then you can have a considerable impact on the local economy."

If COPS money is an economic stimulus, anything is. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) notes, "We're making this up as we go." Still, neither Graham nor any other senator is questioning the need to burn some huge sum of money as a sacrifice to the god of economic stimulus. "The question is not doing nothing versus doing something," says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "The question is the appropriateness of an almost $1 trillion spending bill to address the problem." The Republicans' idea of fiscal conservatism is cutting a $1 trillion behemoth overflowing with pork fat down to a lean, mean $800 billion.