Getting the Stimulus Right

The stimulus package, no longer on track for an Inauguration Day signing but still the largest stimulus in modern history, is working its way rapidly through Congress.  The timetable remains so short, and the stimulus so large, that the job before Congress and the skeleton Obama economic team remains huge.  There is still time to get the stimulus right.  But there is also a risk that things may go wrong.  Here are a few thoughts on how to make the largest stimulus in history something we can all be proud of that will live up to its goal of aiding our economy in the short term and the long term.

First, we need to recognize that fiscal spending is messy, and accordingly, requires real effort and supervision.  Not for nothing is it a fiscal tool that is rarely taken out of the shed.

Unlike monetary policy, which is highly virtual and information age -- you flip a switch, the target rate for federal funds, and the economy (ideally) responds -- or tax cuts, which at most involved mailing out a rebate, fiscal spending is very sticks and mortar.  Clean infrastructure stimulus -- vital as it is to our future at this point in our history -- involves truck rolls, deliveries of heavy materials and actually putting shovel to earth.  So far, the debate around fiscal stimulus has resembled the discussion prior to a monetary move -- what should the level of stimulus be, 600, 850 or perhaps a thousand billion.  It must now take equal account of the process by which that number, whatever it is, gets translated into real economic activity.

Second, we need to face up to the fact that this level of stimulus is massive.  For those not used to calculating in twelve digits, $850 billion is 6% of GDP (3% for each of the two years the stimulus will run), about one sixth of the annual budget per year and equal per year to almost all current discretionary spending.  While yesterday, President Elect Obama signaled that a large chunk of the stimulus (about $300 billion) will take the form of a tax cut, reducing the size of the spending package, we are still talking about a massive amount of spending.

This is important because Congress must generally do two things to spend a dollar.  It must first write law to authorize the spending and, second, appropriate money against the law.  The first step, the "how," usually requires years of deliberation.  The second step, the "how much," is easier once the spending authority exists.  To meet the exceptional timeline, lawmakers are now combing previous authorization bills for authority to spend.  However, even allowing that a substantial chunk of the stimulus will go to reimbursing state medicaid expenses -- in essence to state budget relief -- and another chunk to to a middle class tax cut, finding ways to spend this much money is no walk in the park.

For this reason, it is likely that substantial sums will have to go into holding pens of one type or another, where some official, a governor or perhaps a cabinet Secretary, will have the money available to spend once he or he has identified where to spend it.

So what potential holding pens exist?

State block grants are one potential holding pen for money.  With a block grant, the money is sent to governors with light strings attached for them to spend.  There is much to be said for pushing spending decisions as far down the line as possible. 

However, the governors themelves have requested only $180 billion.  Moreover, money dispatched to states risks being used to relieve pressing budget pressure, rather than on projects that create real jobs.  As an example, in the 1990s Icetea legislation, billions that Congress wanted to go into new transportation projects were diverted by governors to covering ordinary transportation overhead when the economy weakened.  If the Obama Administration is serious about rebuilding our infrastructure and creating new jobs, block grants are not a comprehensive answer.

Another potential form of holding pen is money allocated to a department, such as the Energy Department.  However, again, money dispensed in this matter is likely to sit around until bureaucrats determine how to spend it.  This, also, is inadequate to the crisis at hand.

Since this much spending is not easy and will require massive supervision to avoid waste and generate jobs quickly, the following two ingredients are critical to a successful plan.

Congress should empower a board to oversee the spending program.  As I have written in a prior post, business as usual won't work when we're talking about almost doubling normal discretionay expenditures.  A board would have the ability to act quickly to keep the money moving and oversee the entire process.

Second, Congress should establish a national state-by-state supervisory structure, staffed with auditors, engineers and managers, responsible to the board to oversee spending.  During the New Deal, one state director of the youth activities of the WPA in Texas was Lyndon Johnson. 

In short, it is important that we get this right.  It is neither practical nor responsible to double discretionary spending without creating a supervisory mechanism to oversee and monitor it.