I’m sitting in the House Appropriations Committee’s markup on the $825 billion federal stimulus package and it looks like it’s going to be a very late evening.
Republicans say they are concerned about how quickly the legislation is being pushed through. They say there hasn’t been much bipartisan cooperation and that members haven’t had a lot of time to ask questions about the measure, which includes some $122 billion for education.
But Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the appropriations committee’s chairman and a key author of the legislation, argued that the committee has gotten input from anyone who offered it, and that the economic crisis requires lawmakers to move much more quickly than they normally would.
“This is an extraordinary circumstance,” he said.
So far, there’s been very little discussion of education and other domestic programs financed under the bill. There has, however, been a lot of talk about whether the measure will really get the economy moving again.
Republicans on the panel point out that a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the bill concludes that a relatively small slice of the money will go towards “shovel-ready” projects, meaning infrastructure projects that just need the dollars in order to get started and can put people to work immediatly. And Republicans are worried that distributing so much money so quickly would lead to poor decision-making on the part of states and local governments.
“I don’t question the urgency of this package. I question [some of] the priorities and the price tag,” Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the top Republican on the panel, said. And he worried that “large increases in domestic programs could create unrealistic expectations in future spending.”
But Obey has argued that one of the major purposes of the bill was to help local and state governments avert major budget cuts, including teacher layoffs. And he left open the possibility for even more money to spur the economy down the road.
“This package may undershoot the mark and we may have to make adjustments down the road,” Obey said.
There’s just been one brief exchange so far on the $20 billion school construction proposal in the bill, $14 million of which would go to K-12 facilities.
Rep. John A. Culberson, R-Texas, said,"The federal government has never gotten into the business of [financing] brick-and-mortar” for schools. He said he worried that school districts might look to Congress to continue funding school construction into the future.
But Obey said he didn’t expect such programs to continue when the economic outlook brightens.
“That program is easily dialed back,” he said.
Right now, it looks like the bill is headed for passage, although I don’t know how many Republicans are going to support it. One education lobbyist told me not to expect major changes to the school provisions.
Updated: The bill cleared the committee on a partisan vote, 35-22.