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Obey and “So What?”


There seems to be a false dichotomy emerging in the stimulus debate, that the package must either include earmarks or allow states and local governments to spend the money however they want. This understanding was the basis for House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey’s comments to NPR, which made their way to Drudge’s front page:

U.S. Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, helped write the bill and says he doesn’t like being asked about earmarks.

“We simply made a decision, which took about three seconds, not to have earmarks in the bill,” he says. “And with all due respect, that’s the least important question facing us on putting together this package.”

Leaving out the earmarks does mean Congress will have less control over how the money is spent. But, Obey says, “So what? This is an emergency. We’ve got to simply find a way to get this done as fast as possible and as well as possible, and that’s what we’re doing.”

That doesn’t mean Congress will be responsible if the money is spent badly, he says.

“The person who spends the money badly will be responsible. We are simply trying to build as many protections in as possible,” Obey says. “We have more oversight built into this package than any package in the history of man. If money is spent badly, we want to know about it so we can hold accountable the people who made that choice. And guess what? Regardless of what we do, there will be some stupid decisions made.”

First, Obey’s comment about the amount of oversight built into the package is false. Approximately 0.5 percent of the money is designated for oversight and accountability, which experts say is not nearly enough.

Second, Congress doesn’t have to fill the bill with earmarks in order to reduce the probability that state and local governments will waste the money. Taxpayer groups have submitted dozens of ideas, such as putting a “fix-it-first” requirement into the bill so that states are forced to spend their infrastructure money on maintenence and repairs before they can build highways and bridges to nowhere. 

Third, this bill actually takes several steps backwards in terms of accountability, because it waives state-matching requirements in so many areas of federal spending. Forcing states to put up at least a little of their own money increases the likelihood that they will spend it on local priorities. Giving them tons of no-strings-attached cash and telling them to spend it real fast increases the likelihood that they will waste it on projects of little benefit to anyone. 

Would there still be “some stupid decisions made,” as Obey suggests? Of course. There will be a lot of stupid decisions made anytime governments and not markets are allocating economic resources. But past mistakes have shown us ways to help governments make fewer stupid decisions. Unfortunately, the principal architects of this stimulus bill ignored all those lessons in their haste to expand the size and scope of government as quickly as possible.


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