With unemployment in double-digit territory and the nation still facing a crisis of failing roads, bridges and transit systems, the need for a second federal stimulus program is clear. But in typical Washington fashion, we just can't call it something so politically unpalatable.
Never mind that the Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress seem content to add to the nation's budget deficit with costly and potentially lengthy military commitments to Afghanistan. The term "second stimulus" sounds too much like a government boondoggle to the born-against deficit hawks who kept so quiet for the previous eight years.
But when President Barack Obama met with 100 CEOs, academics, small business owners and union leaders last week to discuss jobs, he pledged to take "every responsible step to accelerate job creation" within his power. Nobody expects a repeat of the $787 billion economic recovery bill he signed into law shortly after taking office, but what about something much smaller, more tightly focused on jobs?
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, has exactly the right idea with his call to spend at least $69 billion more next year on highway and transit projects. With the federal fund for such construction about to go dry anyway (and the authorization for future highway and transit projects stuck in Congressional gridlock because nobody knows how to pay for them), the timing could scarcely be better.
The benefits of transportation spending are numerous. In the short term, it puts people back to work in construction, an industry suffering from a staggering 18 percent unemployment rate. In the long term, better roads and transit enable businesses to grow and prosper. One of the biggest flaws in the first stimulus plan was that it didn't devote enough for this purpose.
Certainly, it would be difficult to make the claim that the nation has spent enough on transportation infrastructure. State officials have already identified 9,500 "ready-to-go" projects totaling $69.5 billion. For Maryland, that includes $615 million in road projects alone.
Critics will no doubt protest that spending more on transportation will mean more government borrowing - even if the government uses TARP payments from banks, automakers and others who received bailouts under the $700 billion program, which officials now project to be significantly less costly than initially estimated. Although the unexpected returns from the TARP program could otherwise have reduced the deficit, this is one kind of debt that can be justified: Transportation improvements do benefit future generations.
Never mind that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would also like to use that money to bail out states still struggling to keep public employees on the payroll. With all due respect to California and its particularly gruesome financial struggles, such bailouts have been done enough.
Spending more on infrastructure, on the other hand, is the type of policy that labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can support wholeheartedly. Both have been critical of the federal government in recent months for failing to invest enough in transportation, with the chamber criticizing Congress for its lack of "political will to raise the investments it will take to build America."
Let the Republicans and "Blue Dog" Democrats whine and bark all they want. This is spending that keeps U.S. competitive in the world and can help reduce not only the federal deficit but the equally troubling trade deficit as well. That's not digging a deeper hole; that's giving the nation a means to get out of one.
There is almost no real infrastructure work that doesn't require the training and experience of the people ordinarily employed in that industry. Want to release more funds for bridge repairs? Sure! Just don't expect that to impact those unemployed from other industries.