"Ready-To-Go Projects" Then and Now
I'm sure that some of the Clinton administration veterans now on Barack Obama's team are having a strong sense of deja vu as the incoming administration and congressional leaders work on an economic stimulus package. This was one of the first priorities of Bill Clinton's presidency in 1993, and it went down to ignominous defeat in Congress in April of 1993 as Democrats failed to break a Republican filibuster against the package.
For those who remember this brouhaha (I was then a federal-state relations director working to gain stimulus funding for projects in Georgia), a particular evocative moment will occur today, when mayors come to Washington ro present a list of 4,600 "ready-to-go" infrastructure projects that merit immediate federal spending. A similar exercise in 1993, aimed at rebutting Republican arguments that infrastructure investments would take too long to materialize to affect the economy, wound up as a public relations disaster. In particular, Republicans seized on a handful of less-than-urgent sounding projects on the state and local project lists, including most famously a swimming pool in Midland, Texas, and described the whole stimulus package as "pork."
Could the same thing happen this time around? Probably not, for at least three major reasons: (1) The economic situation in 1993 was not remotely as frightening as it is today. (2) the Clinton administration was self-restrained in pursuing a stimulus package because of concerns about the burgeoning federal budget deficit; as President-elect Obama said yesterday on Meet the Press, nobody's much concerned about deficits right now. (3) The whole scale of things is vastly different, with the 1993 stimulus package amounting to about $15 billion, as opposed to the half-trillion-and-up estimates for the current effort. Individual projects tend to get lost in a package that large.
You'd like to think as well that the Obama team has learned the lesson of 1993, and won't get sandtrapped by meaningless demagoguery on symbolic issues like the inclusion of a swimming pool in a large and merely illustrative list of "ready-to-go" infrastructure projects. Any stimulus to state and local government will likely be channeled through existing programs with their own existing eligibility rules aimed at separating true needs from "pork." This should be made clear if fiscal hawks in either party try to made a big deal out of individual projects on somebody's suggested list.
Still, at this very moment there re probably people in conservative think tanks or on Capitol Hill who are getting ready to go over the mayoral and other lists with yellow highlighters to identify some howlers. But there's plenty of reason to think that this time around, it just won't matter.