What’s In It, and How Much Will It Cost?

Washington seems to be in chaos at this moment, as no one is sure what is actually in the bill the Democrats have (apparently) agreed on. U.S. News’ Washington Whispers column–which, by the way, was a feature of the magazine when I started reading it in the mid-1960s–says that if you want to be able to read the bill, you pretty much have to be a lobbyist:

We’re receiving E-mails from Capitol Hill staffers expressing frustration that they can’t get a copy of the stimulus bill agreed to last night at a price of $789 billion. What’s more, staffers are complaining about who does have a copy: K Street lobbyists. E-mails one key Democratic staffer: “K Street has the bill, or chunks of it, already, and the congressional offices don’t. So, the Hill is getting calls from the press (because it’s leaking out) asking us to confirm or talk about what we know–but we can’t do that because we haven’t seen the bill. Anyway, peeps up here are sort of a combo of confused and like, ‘Is this really happening?'” Reporters pressing for details, meanwhile, are getting different numbers from different offices, especially when seeking the details of specific programs.

Worse, there seem to be several different versions of what was agreed upon, with some officials circulating older versions of the package that seems to still be developing.

Via The Corner. It may well be that when the pork bill is finally voted on, Senators and Congressmen will still have no clear idea what is in it. Which is fine if, like Barack Obama, you believe that spending = stimulus, so that it really doesn’t matter if the money is, in conventional terms, wasted. No economist, however, could possibly share that view.

One thing we do know is that every estimate of the bill’s cost is far too low. Why? Because the $780 billion price tag assumes that every program established by the pork bill terminates when the bill’s authorization expires. But that isn’t how government programs work. They don’t come to an end, they become a part of next year’s baseline budget, which means that if they don’t increase by an arbitrary percentage, it’s a “cut.”

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin asked the Congressional Budget Office to figure out what the cost of the pork bill will be if its 20 “most popular” provisions–I’m not sure how those were identified, but the list includes sacred cows like Head Start–are kept in place for ten years. The answer: $3.27 trillion. Which implies either mind-boggling debt or major tax increases.

PAUL adds: Hey John, do you remember the David Lawrence columns in U.S. News and World Report, or was that before your time? I always felt guilty that I wanted to read Washington Whispers but had to force myself to read Lawrence.

JOHN responds: Since we were classmates, I’m flattered by the suggestion that Lawrence may have been before my time. For some reason, though, I don’t remember him. Washington Whispers was always my favorite because of its insider tone and authoritative, if generally anonymous, revelations. It occurs to me, in fact, that Washington Whispers was a proto-blog, several decades ahead of the real thing.

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