March 2009

Do You Know What’s in the Stimulus?

by Amy K. Frantz

On February 17 President Obama signed into law HR1: “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” more widely-known as the economic stimulus bill. Prior to receiving the President’s signature, the bill was approved by a vote of 246-183 in the U.S. House of Representatives and 60-38 in the Senate.  But does anyone really know everything that is in this legislation?

Most are familiar with the highlights that have been reported on by newspapers and other media. The $787 billion bill contains a $400 per-worker tax credit, expanded aid for unemployment and food stamp benefits, a one-time $250 payment for recipients of Social Security, and funds for states to spend on infrastructure projects, Medicaid, and education.[1]  But there are many, many more items on which the government will spend your tax dollars in the name of helping the economy recover.  National Taxpayers Union (NTU) found many items in the bill that can be considered “stimulus” only by a stretch of the imagination; below are a few examples from NTU.  A more complete list of “stimulus” spending can be found in the Federal Times.

  • $8 billion for high-speed railway (including an earmark for Sen. Harry Reid’s Los Angeles to Las Vegas MagLev)
  • $1.2 billion for “youth activities” (for “youth” up to 24 years old)
  • $650 million for the Digital TV converter box coupon program
  • $160 million for volunteer programs at the Corporation for National and Community Service
  • $295 million for administrative expenses associated with food stamp program
  • $1 billion for the 2010 Census
  • $1 billion for NASA
  • $3.7 billion to conduct “green” renovations on military bases
  • $10 million for urban canals
  • $2 billion to develop advanced batteries for hybrid cars
  • $5.5 billion for “green” federal buildings
  • $300 million for “green” cars for federal employees
  • $200 million to design and furnish Department of Homeland Security headquarters
  • $146 million for trail maintenance at National Park Service sites
  • $140 million for volcano monitoring systems
  • $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts
  • $1.3 billion for Amtrak[2]

Once the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill, a few of the members from each body get together in conference to hammer out the differences and come up with a single bill. This “conference report” is then voted on by the House and Senate before being sent to the President.  In the case of H.R. 1, the conference report was filed at 10:25 p.m. on Thursday, February 12, and was voted on the very next day, Friday, February 13, at 2:24 p.m. in the House and 5:29 p.m. in the Senate.[3]  Even if a Representative or Senator had wanted to read the bill from cover to cover before voting on its final version, there would have been time only for the speediest of readers, because it was over 1,000 pages long![4]  Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) asked Representatives and Senators who supported the bill to sign a pledge “certify[ing] to their constituents that they will have read the bill and conference report by the time they cast the vote.”[5]  Sadly, no one responded to ATR’s challenge by the time of the vote.

We should all be concerned with the ease with which our elected officials are spending nearly $800 billion, and concerned that this spending will bring our national debt close to $13 trillion. Our tax dollars will go toward paying the interest on the national debt and one day our tax dollars – or more likely our children’s tax dollars, or our grandchildren’s tax dollars, or their grandchildren’s tax dollars – will go to pay off the out-of-control spending by our government.  Just how much is $13 trillion?  We all know it is a big amount, but perhaps this will put it into perspective:

  • If you spent $1 every second, you’d have to keep spending for 412,000 years to get to $13 trillion.  That means you’d have to start shortly after the time human beings first starting using stone tools and fire to get to $13 trillion today.
  • $13 trillion in one dollar bills weighs 28 million pounds.  That’s as much as 87 blue whales or 462 Statues of Liberty.
  • If you laid 13 trillion one-dollar bills end-to-end they’d reach from the earth to the sun and back…five times over.  That’s 946 million miles of greenbacks.[6]

Unfortunately, we are only learning after the fact the specifics of the economic “stimulus” bill that was approved by Congress and signed into law by the President. The bill was rushed through the legislative process so quickly that even those who may have wanted to read the bill before the vote were denied that opportunity.  America’s taxpayers deserve better.

An organization called Downsize D.C. has drafted the “Read the Bills Act” that would require bills to be read before being adopted by Congress.  Downsize D.C. describes the Act’s requirements:

  • Each bill, and every amendment, must be read in its entirety before a quorum in both the House and Senate.
  • Every member of the House and Senate must sign a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that he or she has attentively either personally read, or heard read, the complete bill to be voted on.
  • Every old law coming up for renewal under the sunset provisions must also be read according to the same rules that apply to new bills.
  • Every bill to be voted on must be published on the Internet at least 7 days before a vote, and Congress must give public notice of the date when a vote will be held on that bill.
  • Passage of a bill that does not abide by these provisions will render the measure null and void, and establish grounds for the law to be challenged in court.[7]

Is it too much to ask that our elected officials know exactly what they are considering when casting their votes?

Amy K. Frantz is Research Vice-President at Public Interest Institute.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute or Tax Education Foundation.  They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.

[1] “Stimulus highlights,” Associated Press, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 14, 2009, p. 1A.

[2] “Today is Our Last Chance to Defeat the ‘Stimulus’!,” e-mail from National Taxpayers Union, February 13, 2009.

[3] All Congressional Actions on H.R. 1, The Library of Congress, Thomas website, <http://thomas.loc.gov/> (February 23, 2009).

[4] “Chairman Tom Price with 1073-page Non-Stimulus Text,” U.S. Representative Tom Price (R-GA), February 13, 2009, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A68eWFAbClA> (February 23, 2009).

[5] “ATR Challenge to Those Who Plan to Vote ‘Yes’ on ‘Stimulus’: Will You Have Read the Bill?,” Americans for Tax Reform Center for Fiscal Accountability, February 13, 2009, <http://www.fiscalaccountability.org/index.php?content=nfs-reacha > (February 23, 2009).

[6] “How Big is $13 Trillion in Debt?,” Cord Blomquist, Senior Communications Director, Competitive Enterprise Institute, e-mail sent on February 13, 2009.

[7] “Make Congress Read Their Bills Before Voting,” Downsize D.C., <http://www.downsizedc.org/etp/campaigns/27> (February 25, 2009).