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Obama's Stimulus Package

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Today, President-elect Obama is moving forward with what he has billed as his top priority: an economic stimulus package called the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan." He is scheduled to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and possibly the Republican leaders in both chambers. In his weekend radio address, Obama said that his goal is to put together a plan that "not only creates jobs in the short-term but spurs economic growth and competitiveness in the long-term." The package will focus on providing assistance to low- and middle-income Americans, strengthening the nation's infrastructure, and investing in states that are struggling with falling revenues, with the goal of creating or preserving at least 3 million jobs over the next two years. Underscoring the urgency of addressing the nation's faltering economy, Pelosi has said that her goal is to pass a bill that is ready to be signed by Obama once he takes office on Jan. 20. However, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has cast doubt on such an expedited timeline, and many conservatives are already indicating that they plan to block this progress. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs conceded that the stimulus package is "unlikely" to be ready by the inauguration.

Middle-Class Assistance:

Over the weekend, Obama officials announced that they would like Congress to direct 40 percent of the stimulus bill toward tax breaks aimed at businesses and middle-class workers. Most workers would receive a $500 payroll credit, and some businesses would "receive incentives to create jobs and make equipment purchases more affordable." While these cuts may be able to give the economy a kick-start right away, they are also meant to assuage skeptical conservatives. Congressional Democratic leaders are also considering unemployment benefits and health coverage to assist jobless workers, as economists predict that the U.S. unemployment rate could reach 10 percent by the end of 2009. Obama's goal of creating 3 million jobs will be spurred by the creation of "green" jobs that would not only begin addressing the country's energy needs by shifting to clean energy but also contribute to private sector job creation. A Center for American Progress report by Dr. Robert Pollin and University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute economists estimates that by investing $100 billion over two years, the United States could create 2 million jobs, "with a significant proportion in the struggling construction and manufacturing sectors."

Infrastructure Development

Another important part of Obama's job creation plan is infrastructure investment. When a water main broke in suburban Maryland last month -- trapping a dozen commuters in their cars as four feet of freezing cold water surged around them -- the public received a startling reminder of the current state of the country's crumbling infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $1.6 trillion is needed over the next five years to repair and restore the nation's infrastructure." As NPR has pointed out, "Every $1 billion the federal government commits to roads, bridges and other infrastructure helps to support some 35,000 jobs." This program should repair existing roads and bridges, not pay to build new highways that would foster sprawl and increase oil consumption. "The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge and upgrading that rail line, the slump is over and the stimulus isn't needed," wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in October. "Well, that argument has no force now, since the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let's get those projects rolling." Indeed, a November Washington Post-ABC News poll found that almost 70 percent of those surveyed said "they support new federal spending of as much as $700 billion on construction projects and other programs to try to stimulate the economy," even if it means increasing the size of the deficit.

Direct Aid to States:

As CAP has noted, a stimulus package also needs to "help states cope with falling revenues that otherwise force them to lay off workers, cut spending on critical safety-net programs, and shortchange areas of long-term importance such as education, infrastructure investment, and health care." Several governors have already appealed to the federal government for assistance. "I firmly believe that if it took only two weeks for the federal government to find $700 billion to bail out Wall Street and bank executives," New York Gov. David Paterson (D) told Congress, "then we ought to be able to find a fraction of that amount to help preserve essential services at the state level." Health care, in particular, is one of the top costs plaguing the states. Currently, at least 27 states are facing budget gaps and some have already slashed safety-net programs. Medicaid consumes an average 17 percent of state budgets. Media reports indicate that Obama and congressional leaders are pushing for direct aid to states, which may "come in the form of payments that could help meet the growing costs of Medicaid spending."

Conservative Obstruction:

Despite the urgency after eight years of the Bush administration's do-nothing attitude, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that he and his fellow conservatives are in no rush to provide this important economic relief and plan to put the brakes to attempts to quickly pass a package. "I believe the taxpayers deserve to know a lot more about where it will be spent before we consider passing it," he said in a statement last week. According to the Washington Post, McConnell has also "called for a weeklong cooling off period between when the bill is drafted and when it is voted on, allowing time to dissect it for signs of 'fraud and waste.'" Conservatives have the power to filibuster the legislation if they oppose it. (McConnell, however, had no problem quickly passing President Bush's Wall Street bailout, even though that package had almost no oversight safeguards. In fact, he "led the battle" to pass the bill.) The real risk, according to many economists, is in doing too little. Krugman, for example, has said that he would like to see a "bigger" stimulus package -- as high as a trillion dollars. New York University Economics Professor Nouriel Roubini has explained that failure to enact a fiscal stimulus could actually result in wider deficits, which would send the country into a "very severe recession."