The Great American Bacon Bomb
Mitt Romney didn’t even get it right: the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act is looking more pork than clunk.
Googling “Bacon Bomb” brings some interesting recipes. There’s Smoked Bacon Bomb, Bacon Explosion(!). If these don’t satisfy your taste for the extreme, there’s the chimeric Bacon Explosion Slider Bomb. If Guy Fieri went to Washington, he’d surely be feeling right at home in the House of Representatives.
Early this week, Mitt Romney took the place of Gordon Ramsay in the Fiscal Kitchen of the US, calling out a shambolic disaster cooked up in the House that is now getting shuttled on to the Senate. His 23 February WSJ op-ed, blandly titled Biden’s Stimulus Bill is a $1.9 Trillion Clunker doesn’t exactly deliver a Generation Z kind of sizzle. Of course, Mitt’s not known for a colorful, expletive-laden rant; his highlight reel of the last decade includes the far less entertaining quiet-part-out-loud Binders Full of Women. Nor would it do us any good if Mitt went weird and started shouting and flinging things around. But someone needs to, and if we could borrow Gordon for just five minutes, it might help.
Questioning federal aid during desperate times is never easy, and it takes a certain measure of political courage. Romney’s actually shown quite a bit of courage in the last few years as we endured the horrors of Trump’s obscene con job on our nation. For Romney, being a Republican meant standing up for values, not obsequious deference to political demagoguery. And, as we’ve entered a new administration, he’s got a fresh opportunity to establish a path for Republican identity. It could start with calling out one of the more gruesome pork barrel proposals to slop onto the Senate’s agenda.
How About We Rescue You…Next Year?
First of all, $1.9 trillion is truly extraordinary. If that were to be taken directly from the pockets of every taxpaying American (spoiler: it won’t, but hang in there), it would amount to more than $12,000 per person. Nominally, the money is meant to be coming to America’s rescue during the pandemic. But if we believe the sunny predictions of Pfizer, Moderna, and now Johnson and Johnson, by this summer we’ll be mostly out of this mess.
Here’s the kicker. As Romney points out, the Congressional Budget Office has shown us that nearly a third of this money is going to be spent later, not now. As in, over the next ten years. Imagine, if you will, the reaction we’d have for a vaccine plan with a similar schedule. And yet, we’ve let this one go.
A significant portion of the proposal goes toward Ways and Means, as well as Oversight and Reform, which, to most of us, is about as meaningful as Propelyne Glycerol or Sodium Bisulfate. So let’s start with some more familiar topics. Which, in fact, feature some of the most significant spending allocated for presumably post-pandemic years:
With the exception of Financial Services, each of the four categories adding up to nearly half a trillion dollars have the vast majority of their spend for next year, or even further beyond. Focusing on Education and Labor, Romney echoes the CBO’s analysis:
The Biden stimulus calls for $170 billion for education yet has no realistic plan to reopen K-12 schools. Further, of the $80 billion Congress has already authorized for education, $68 billion hasn’t yet been used by schools and universities. Stunningly, the CBO says only 4% of the K-12 spending in the Biden bill would occur in 2021 and that some education and labor funds would remain unspent in 2029, after a potential Biden second term.
There may very well be a rationale of some kind for this deferred spending. Perhaps there’s a byzantine financing process in which outlays must be associated with specific, strategic, multi-year programs whose inception begins years earlier and whose subsequent spends are directly associated with capping the success of earlier, foundational efforts. Cynics would say it’s simply pork barrel spending. But, as Romney points out, our experience in the last twelve months points to a different story — the opportunity cost of funds simply going unused. Which, in some ways, is a sin of its own. We’ve spent a fortune on economic ingredients that are sitting on the proverbial shelf, doing nothing for us.
State Budget Surplus? Here’s Some Money Anyway!
Getting back to the bigger picture of the entire proposal, we also have the two largest categories, starting with Oversight and Reform:
In the case of Oversight and Reform, we see a much more reasonable picture: nearly all of the proposed spending will be for 2021, while we are still emerging from the economic devastation of the pandemic. But, taking a closer look, nearly all of the Oversight and Reform category is earmarked for state and local relief. Going back to March and April of last year, we can remember the desperate searches for PPEs, ventilators, and other critical support for the overwhelmed hospitals in New York State. Federal assistance was clearly needed, and urgently. Coming back to present time, Romney sizes up the situation of the states:
JP Morgan found that 21 states had revenue increases in 2020. Other states drew on rainy-day funds — which is what they are there for. Only a few are in severe financial distress. The same is true of cities and counties: Some are hurting, but the great majority aren’t. Most local tax revenue comes from property taxes, which are far less volatile than sales or income taxes. Sending out hundreds of billions of dollars to states and localities regardless of need is both wasteful and harmful.
Twenty-one states aren’t even half of the states in our union. Clearly the majority of our states are not experiencing the same. And we’d need to look at the size of those 21 economies relative to our entire GDP. But it does ask the question — where is this going? Is that $350 billion going to the most needy states? And if so, to whom? For what?
What’s Left for You and Me?
This gets us to the largest category: Ways and Means. Of the approximately $650 billion in Ways and Means, the majority of the aid comes from approximately $200 billion in unemployment benefits and $450 billion in supplemental stimulus to individuals. And that’s for you and me. Money going directly to those of us who have felt the true double whammy of fear: fear of the pandemic, made much worse by being at home in furlough, unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, eviction, and possibly going hungry.
Romney is no stranger to being tone-deaf, and here he hints at the typically cynical attitude of many establishment republicans that perennially loses votes across the nation:
Extending federal supplemental unemployment benefits beyond March 14 is a good idea that merits bipartisan support. But the Biden stimulus calls for checks of $400 a week in addition to state checks through September. At that level, the majority of the unemployed would make more by not working. Employers already complain that they can’t find employees.
Now…Romney probably didn’t mean that people would rather stay at home and listlessly rot. We are, on the whole, a nation who wants to work, and feels a sense of duty and fulfillment while employed. What he probably meant was that some of us might be at risk of earning less if we go to work than if we stay at home. Which, of course, if is in fact the true concern of establishment republicans, then we need to be hearing more about economic solutions for the under-employed, and the lack of living wages in this country.
Less Oatmeal, More Flavortown?
Unfortunately, once again, it’s a missed opportunity. Romney’s op-ed, though thoroughly needed and in fact quite brave, once again lacks what we need from the Republican party: a clear sense of character, vigor, and energy, and a laser focus on the possibilities for our country. What we get instead is a dry, cold, shame-on-the-spending kind of scolding. It’s just not going to move the needle, and it’s not going to get the most of us to sit up and pay attention.
After four years of absolute crazy coming out of the White House, we are surely breathing a sigh of relief at the more adult tone coming from the nation’s highest office. But that shouldn’t lead us into complacency. We are still in the midst of a deep crisis. And with crisis, we need something stronger, something stark, something glaring and blaring that will bolt us back upright. One of Trump’s signature insults was: low energy! We cannot continue to just issue bland, boring, conservative kinds of viewpoints. The irony of this Sunday’s CPAC convention will be that the first ‘C’ in that acronym will be pretty far from what will come spewing out of that podium. Do we need more Flavortown or Shambolicisms fron the Republicans right now? A slightly more exciting, energizing dose of mild crazy? Or at least: colorful courage? Yes we do. How’s Ramsay’s or Fieri’s calendars looking, anyway? Likely not as packed. At least not until that money arrives in 2022.
Michael Thompson as Information for Humans helps companies create reliable, understandable information. With over 25 years of experience as an effective project and team manager, he is a seasoned provider of quality information controls, governance, and presentation for clients and the broader community.