WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have entered discussions over an economic stimulus package that could grow to include $850 billion in new spending and tax cuts over the next two years, a gigantic sum that some Democrats say could prove difficult to push rapidly through Congress.
A package of that size – which would include at least $100 billion for cash-strapped state governments and more than $350 billion for investments in infrastructure, alternative energy and other priorities – is a significant increase over the numbers previously contemplated by Democrats. It would exceed the $700 billion bailout of the U.S. financial system, as well as the annual budget for the Pentagon.
The potential for massive new spending has touched off a frenzy among interest groups eager to claim their share of the expanding stimulus pie. The profusion of requests from governors, transportation groups, environmental activists and business organizations is spawning fears that the package could be loaded with provisions that satisfy important Democratic constituencies but fail to provide the jolt needed to pull the nation out of a deepening recession.
“It’s everybody’s wish list, everybody’s favorite program. And I think that’s a big mistake,” said Alice Rivlin, a Brookings Institution economist and former budget director for President Bill Clinton who has been advising Democrats. “I agree with the Obama team that we need a big increase in public investment, but it should be done very, very wisely,” rather than through a rushed process that risks being “seen as scattering money to the wind.”
An Obama adviser involved in crafting the stimulus package said the transition team was keenly aware of the potential pitfalls and was focused on funding ideas that would quickly pump money into the sagging economy, fulfilling Obama’s promise to create or preserve 2.5 million jobs by 2011. Because many ideas probably won’t meet that standard, the adviser said, the team is developing a screen to keep them out.
On Thursday, Obama economic adviser Jason Furman and congressional liaison Phil Schiliro met on Capitol Hill with key congressional staff to lay out the plan Obama expects to present to lawmakers. According to notes taken by a participant and shared by a senior congressional aide on the condition of anonymity, the pair said Obama is putting together a package of $670 billion to $770 billion but that he expects additions by Congress to jack up the total to about $850 billion.
While that figure is larger than any previously discussed by Democratic leaders, it is within the range of recommendations from economists. Some, such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, have called on the government to spend as much as $1 trillion to combat rising unemployment and spur economic activity.
Furman and Schiliro said the package would include $100 billion to help states cover the expanding cost of Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor. With more than half of states reporting budget shortfalls this year, the package also could include big increases in state block grants and other programs intended to help local governments.