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The Stimulus Defenders Speak

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It's been called a Christmas tree of spending, a sop to liberal priorities, and a Democratic power-grab in the guise of an economic recovery package.

The stimulus bill as passed by the House of Representatives has been parodied by politicians and the commentariat alike. Fifty million dollars for the arts? Money to research STDs? Funds to sod the National Mall? What, exactly, were Democrats thinking?

The disparagement has grown so intense in recent days that Democrats in the Senate and even a few in the House have begun casting their lot with the critics.

And as the heat mounts, the congressional staffers and appropriations experts who helped craft the bill have become nearly apoplectic. The stimulus package, they say, is one of the most intricate pieces of legislation to come out of Congress in decades, one that achieves goals progressives have unsuccessfully sought for a quarter-century (yes, even through the Clinton administration).

In a series of interviews, these staffers, frustrated by the lack of effective push-back to the criticisms and restrained in their ability to mount an on-the-record defense, have resorted instead to an unexpected form of rebuttal -- so what?

As in: So what if the bill includes a litany of unrelated projects? The stimulus is supposed to work across many sectors, not one. Predictive models are historically unreliable when it comes to job creation; the bill funds projects far and wide, near-term and long for a reason.

And so what if this bill props up dormant federal programs? The policies of the past eight years were hardly stimulative. That Democrats would push their priorities is the surest sign yet that elections actually do have consequences.

Why didn't a single House Republican vote for the recovery package? One high-ranking congressional aide opined to the Huffington Post, "It wasn't because of family planning funds or preserving the National Mall or whatever Rush Limbaugh and Drudge's talking points were. It's because this legislation is the clearest repudiation of Bush and Congressional Republican economic policies yet."

It is, in a way, a public relations coup that the stimulus has been boiled down to, as one Hill Democrat puts it, "funding for the arts, funding for the mall, and funding to fight AIDS." Those aspects of the legislation, as the White House points out, constitute a mere 7/100th of one percent of the entire package. Moreover, the size of the legislation is not even the most pertinent topic of debate. For many economists, the issue isn't whether the stimulus is too large, but whether it goes far enough in producing a new economic structure instead of patching up the old one.

Critics of the recovery bill have also earned their stripes by arguing that the stimulus, by sending money to many different places, won't be stimulative. The legislation's authors respond that many parts of the plan serve a dual purpose: to spur the creation or retention of jobs while setting the stage for more durable markets.

As an example, defenders put forth a $2.6 billion appropriation for advanced battery technology research and development for cars. The project will create jobs. But the long-term ramifications are far greater. U.S. manufacturers were beaten to the hybrid market by their Japanese competitors and suffered economically as a consequence. Batteries are, as one Hill aide put it, "the next big frontier."

"This is critical to helping the auto industry open green car factories here in America," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). "Building American cars and trucks with home-grown, climate-friendly, fuel-efficient technology creates jobs, saves consumers money at the pump and protects the planet from global warming."

Then there is $6.7 billion for renovations and repairs to federal buildings, nearly 90 percent of which would be geared towards making them more energy-efficient.

"I don't think people realize what a big deal weatherizing the federal buildings would be. The government wastes millions of dollars every year on buildings that are old and need to be weatherized," said a high-ranking Democratic aide. "We have windows that leak and have bad insulation. These are buildings all over the country and we are going to go in there, weatherize them, create jobs and save money down the road."

Also on the energy front: $600 million for a new fleet of energy efficient vehicles for the government and $300 million worth of rebates to purchase similarly efficient products; both of which will spur spending, create jobs and generate long-term savings in energy costs.

The stimulus also includes $20 billion for school renovations and construction. "This isn't to build a new sports stadium," explained another Hill aide, "but to make sure that the facilities where kids are learning are being brought into good condition." In a lot of these places -- especially colleges -- the school is the hub of the local economy.

Along those lines, the package includes $2 billion in Head Start and Early Head Start funding which, aides project will create tens-of-thousands of new jobs in early education staffing, in addition to the long term benefits to the students.

There are countless other examples of stimulus expenditures for which Democrats on the Hill are eager to offer a defense. And in talking to them, two general themes emerge. The stimulus is geared toward efficiency. Six billion dollars to weatherize homes and $10 billion for mass transit, for example, will spur job creation and follow-up business -- suppliers will have to accommodate new demands. But they will also save money for consumers in the long run.

The other theme is that the Bush years have left the country's economy in such disrepair that legislators are required to think big. This is true on a broad level, where the middle class saw its purchasing power drastically diminished as their income remained stagnant. But is also true in a micro sense. Part of the reason the stimulus devotes so much to school renovation, an aide said, is because "there were pretty much no investments made in this area under the Bush administration... The only direct funding came in the form of emergency assistance in the gulf areas, after Katrina."

And so, Democrats who crafted the stimulus found themselves in a bind: forced to patch up the bruises of the Bush years with an eye towards creating a new economic system entirely. Whether they can thread that needle is a topic of serious debate. But it is one they take more seriously than the complaints being lobbed by Republican critics.

"We cannot move forward without understanding what created this crisis," said Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel. "This recovery package is the beginning of a longer-term investment in America's middle class, our small businesses, health care, renewable energy technologies and a new infrastructure to reinvigorate our economy so that American workers and businesses can compete and win in the 21st Century."