Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - Handling Things the Right Way in Washington

Posted on February 22, 2009

This week, President Obama signed the so-called stimulus bill into law, effectively borrowing $1 trillion from future generations of Americans who will have to find a way to pay it back. For perspective, if you spent $1 a second, it would take you nearly 25,000 years to spend the amount of money in this bill. And to think that the Administration and our Democratic leaders in Congress rushed such a tremendous financial obligation without the time to go through it, debate it, or take it to the people: this is not the transparency we were promised during the campaign. It’s a huge sum of money, and it might be defensible if it were targeted and focused on creating jobs now. But it most certainly is not. We were told that the economy might never recover if we didn’t pass this package—which I opposed—yet only 23 percent of the bill will be spent this year. When I and most Americans think on “the fierce urgency of now,” I am confident that what we have in mind isn’t spending $50 million on red-bellied harvest mice, yet this kind of spending on questionable projects seems to be more the rule than the exception in this plan. Democrats in Washington are not seriously focused on stimulus spending; instead, what they’re focused on is funding causes they support—many of which might in fact be worthy of funding, but which have little to do with stimulating the economy, and little to do with securing and creating jobs for Tennesseans. Take, for instance, the education funding in the spending bill. Clearly there is no more worthy cause than education, but where is the economic stimulus here? When I served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, my first response to a problem was not simply to throw money in its general direction. But the powers that be in Washington don’t think that way; they think the solution is to spend more and more taxpayer money. The Education Department’s budget today is about $68 billion, but for each of the next two years, we are adding $40 billion for the department to spend. And on what, exactly—a public-school system with which we’re all completely satisfied? Hardly. Where’s the accountability? As Secretary of Education, I knew we needed to get the incentives right first, that there needed to be accountability before we spent more. With this additional $40 billion a year, we should be asking what we can do differently to reward outstanding teachers, to add to charter schools, to offer parents more choices for afterschool programs for their children. Instead of stimulating the economy, this bill turned into one of the largest federal education-funding bills in our nation’s history. And education is of course not the only arena we are funding in record amounts. The bill also adds an enormous sum to both the energy and healthcare sectors. But again, we weren’t given the option of serious consideration or discussion. The right way to have handled our ailing economy would have been to address the most pressing issues first. It’s housing that got us into this mess, and with our limited funds and in this fragile economy, we should focus on housing to get us out. We need get the credit markets flowing again, so that Main Street can get back to business. Congress should address the big issues like education, health care, energy, and climate change, but it should approach them carefully—and most importantly, at the right time and in the right fashion. The time is now to address the housing crisis—time to debate it, take it to the people, and send a plan for the President to sign, so that we can get our economy moving.