Two independent debates about economic-stimulus legislation - one in Salem last week and another in Washington, D.C., this week - shared some traits:
• Both the federal stimulus bill and the state stimulus package require borrowing massive sums of money.
• Consideration of both packages started with the good intention of providing a spark to our moribund economy and putting people back to work.
• But both departed from that stated goal when they got pushed and pulled to fit partisan, special-interest and regional needs.
• In both cases, no one can predict with certainty which of these hundreds of supposedly stimulating expenditures will have the desired economic effect.
Focus should be on jobs
The U.S. Congress and Oregon Legislature were correct in their desire to do something - anything - to brace the state and nation against the worst economic onslaught in decades. And we believe some of their ideas were on target.
Spending money on major public-works projects, for example, will encourage private-sector companies to gear up for building roads, bridges and the like.
But when Congress and the Legislature veered away from an emphasis on infrastructure and job creation and into the more narrow interests of their individual members, the resulting legislation grew confusing and less effective.
Thus, we witnessed on the one hand that the Oregon Legislature had the good sense to direct the majority of its $176 million stimulus package into repairing and expanding worn-out college and university campuses. But that same body couldn't resist its compulsion to allocate money to every burg in Oregon, and that's why dollars that were supposed to invigorate the economy will instead be used for such things as replacing gutters on tiny state offices or 'refurbishing' eight cattle guards in Burns.
The same story played out in Washington, D.C., this week, except the numbers were literally about 5,000 times bigger.
An $800 billion package that contains reasonable infrastructure expenditures has been laden with other spending that - while perhaps necessary in some form - won't provide a direct jolt to the economy and therefore shouldn't be included in this bill.
Lawmakers must follow up
In an interview with the Portland Tribune last week, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., defended using so-called stimulus money for items such as nutrition for the elderly or health care for the uninsured. We agree that protecting vulnerable citizens is an important function of government, but does it really qualify as economic stimulus?
The same can be said for the federal government backfilling school funding in states such as Oregon. It's helpful on a one-time basis, but doesn't qualify as stimulus or as more than a temporary bandage.
Our critique, of course, won't change the minds of Blumenauer or other lawmakers. However, it is not enough for either the U.S. Congress or the Oregon Legislature to pass massive spending bills, take credit for helping the economy and then move onto other topics.
Our senators and representatives at the state and national level must be accountable for their votes. That requires that they monitor the impact of these stimulus bills and measure the results in terms that the public understands.
Given the downward trajectory of the economy, more stimulus may yet be required. But before either the nation or the state borrows more money to pour into the economy, they must first determine whether funds already spent have created a measurable effect.