WASHINGTON – They call it “stimulus” legislation, but the economic measures racing through Congress would devote tens of billions of dollars to causes that have little to do with jolting the country out of recession.
There’s $345 million for Agriculture Department computers, $650 million for TV converter boxes, $15 billion for college scholarships — worthy, perhaps, but not likely to put many Americans back to work quickly.
Yes, there are many billions of dollars in “ready-to-go” job-creating projects in President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill. But there are also plenty of items that are just unfinished business for Congress’ old bulls.
An $800 billion-plus package, it turns out, gives lawmakers plenty of opportunities to rid themselves of nagging headaches left over from the days when running up the government’s $10 trillion-plus debt was a bigger concern.
There’s $1 billion to deal with Census problems and $88 million to help move the Public Health Service into a new building next year. The Senate would devote $2.1 billion to pay off a looming shortfall in public housing accounts, $870 million to combat the flu and $400 million to slow the spread HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia.
“I have communicated to the administration that there are parts of this package that don’t meet the test that they themselves established of temporary, timely and targeted,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. He wants Obama to weigh in to knock out the clunkers during House-Senate negotiations.
But nothing is in the legislation by accident. By including in the Senate stimulus bill such far-ranging ideas as $40 million to convert the way health statistics are collected — from paper to an electronic system — lawmakers are able to thin out their in-boxes, even if they aren’t doing much to create jobs.
There’s also $380 million in the Senate bill for a rainy day fund for the Women, Infants and Children program that delivers healthful food to the poor. WIC got a $1 billion infusion last fall.
At the same time, putting items in the stimulus bill that really should be handled in annual appropriations bills creates more room in the latter for pet project and other programs.
It creates “headroom,” a top Senate GOP budget aide said, for things senators didn’t have room for in the regular process but still want to do….