Is Budget Office Being Used To Derail Stimulus?

Isaiah J. Poole

Conservative leaders are using news of a Congressional Budget Office report released this week to argue that much of what is in President Obama’s economic recovery plan is a waste of money because most of the money can’t be spent before at least 2011, and thus won’t stimulate the economy in the short term. Congressional Budget Office reports are usually treated with great reverence, but a report is only as good as its source, and the sourcing for the CBO’s finding was revealed today to be highly suspect: Bush administration officials in the Department of Transportation.

That became clear in a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing today, when Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., explained the disconnect between the CBO findings and those of state transportation and infrastructure departments and those of such interest groups as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Oberstar said today that he has been talking extensively to that latter group to make sure that a provision on the recovery package being considered by the House, which would require states to commit recovery funds they receive for infrastructure within 90 days or else it would be reallocated, was feasible. He said he was satisfied that the limitation was feasible. But the CBO concluded that at least one-fourth of a proposed $825 billion economic stimulus plan, including most of the approximately $355 billion in proposed discretionary spending on highways, renewable energy and other initiatives, could not be spent until at least 2011.

When Oberstar asked the CBO what it based its conclusion on, he said he was told, “We weren’t talking to the same people you were talking to.” The CBO based its conclusions, according to Oberstar, on Bush appointees in the Federal Highway Administration and other Transportation Department agencies.

These were the same officials who regularly worked to block or slow down federal funding for major transportation projects, such as a rail link between Washington’s Dulles International Airport and its subway system that faced agency roadblocks for years before final, grudging approval late last year.

The people who actually have the contracts—state and local agencies resposible for the day-to-day maintenance of our roads and our public transportation networks—are a better barometer of what’s doable than Republican ideologues in Washington. One of the witnesses at today’s hearing, Chicago Transportation Authority chairman Carole Brown, said that her agency had about $500 million worth of projects ready to go. “If you write me a check today, we will be spending the money tomorrow,” she said.

Officials from Florida, New York and Wisconsin who testified at the hearing made similar comments.

During the hearing, President Obama released a statement that said that the CBO report does not reflect what he called the extraordinary efforts being made by federal, state and local governments to prepare to move funding and contracts quickly through bureaucracies so that recovery projects can begin.

It was the combination of uncritical reporting of the CBO study and a right wing always ready to capitalize on anything that will bolster their anti-spending agenda that had led to the false conclusion that, as Investor’s Business Daily wrote in an editorial today, Obama’s plan should not be called “stimulus” but “pork.”

What neither the media nor the conservative ideologues are taking into account is that hundreds of public officials and nongovernmental groups have been preparing for the day when the country would get serious about investing in itself. They are also not taking into account the fact that, as Oberstar said as he relayed Obama’s rebuttal of the CBO’s findings, that “elections do matter.”

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