Critics and supporters alike, however, should hope that the next fiscal stimulus package is more of a commercial success than its predecessor, lest another big-budget flop be tacked on to the ever-growing federal debt.
“It has to be done in a way where you get a good rate of return,” says Tom Schatz, president of Taxpayers Against Government Waste. “What can we do that will work, not how much can we spend and where can we spend it?”
The hastily conceived $168-billion stimulus package quickly signed into law last February was built around tax breaks for business and tax rebates for consumers, whose impact on the economy was fleeting, at best.
This time around—with recession a reality not a perceptionand consumer confidence at a record low—the package may be bigger and broader. But that doesn’t mean it will be any wiser or more likely to leave a lasting impression on the nation’s economy or psyche of consumers.
For the Investor:
If anything, it may be the mother of all stimulus packages.
“There's a political element, Wall Street got its bailout now everyone needs to get something,” says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which advocates fiscal responsibility.
In its recent nine-point prescription for sound fiscal policy, the coalition joined a growing chorus of groups calling for a balancing of short-term stimulus and long-term discipline, noting that spending patterns are already unsustainable and new revenue will needed
Thus far, Congress seems to be heeding another call: reaction, not action.
“It’s a pretty dangerous process the way its been approached so far," says Brandon Arnold, who follows public policy for the Cato Institute. Members of Congress, he adds, seem to “setting a figure before considering what is needed.”
The original price tag was about $60 billion package, but it wasn’t long before it was $150 billion, then $300 billion was thrown around.
Given the current state of the economy, $300 billion would be equal to about 2 percent of GDP. Though that’s a relatively small sum compared to the federal government’s extraordinarily expensive efforts to shore up the financial sector, its larger than most recent stimulus packages.
In 2001, the tax rebate portion of Bush Administraion's long-term tax-cut legislation totaled just $38 billion.
President Clinton’s unsuccessful $30 billion plan in 1993—proposed, it later turns out, after the recession had ended but while joblessness continued to rise—was rejected by Congress.
Economist Steve Hanke, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a fellow at Cato, says that—in the context of the federal government’s “serial spending spree” of bailouts and stimulus packages—“$300 billion sounds like chicken feed."
The high likelihood of more money this time also increases the possibility of a bigger shopping list.
“There doesn't seem to be as much consensus about its makeup as there as there was for the one they did in January,” says Bixby.
That makes it even more vulnerable to political horse-trading and lobbyists.
"There is such a populist mentality out there,” says Arnold “The need to give something back to the people. It’s much easier to cobble something together by adding more things.”
Arnold says lobbyists are already lining up with their suggestions.
“They need to see what's worked in the past and not turn it into pork-laden legislation,” agrees Schatz.