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An Independent Eye on Stimulus Spending


A commission made up of non-elected experts is the best way to keep influence or favoritism out of the huge spending package

President Obama couldn't have put it more plainly: "We're not having earmarks in the recovery package, period," he told reporters two weeks before he was sworn in. Some senators—including Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the Senate Budget Committee chairman—have been speaking out against pork in the proposed stimulus programs.

Time for a reality check. The $819 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 making its way through Congress is already an earmarker's dream, with much of the bargaining aimed at getting projects funded. While most of that money is allocated to tax cuts and extending programs such as unemployment insurance, $350 billion is meant for public works projects. That's more than 20 times the $16.5 billion in earmarks appropriated by Congress in fiscal 2008. Yesterday's earmark is today's "shovel-ready" stimulus project.

Disbursing such a huge amount on the basis of influence or favoritism isn't just disheartening to contemplate. It will likely be detrimental to our efforts at economic recovery.

How, then, can we avoid earmarking our way through that $350 billion?

I propose the creation of an Investment Commission, a nonpartisan panel of experts that will transparently and publicly recommend specific allocations. The idea takes its inspiration from the nonpartisan Base Realignment and Closure commission, which has the job of shutting excess military installations. That panel is in the business of ending things rather than starting them, of course. But the principle—experts making judgments without political interference—is the same. It's the idea, too, behind a provision in the current stimulus bill that would create a Transparency Board to protect against fraud.

The Investment Commission I envision would include 12 experts from a variety of fields—prominent people who have never held elective office. (There are roughly 12 areas of appropriation.) On the bill's passage, the House and Senate would each appoint three panelists by consensus of the two parties. The President would name six, two in consultation with the Republicans.

The appointees could include academics, professionals in government, and people from nonprofits or business—all experts, not partisans. Once impaneled, they would start reviewing potential projects submitted by Congress or the President. Within, say, 75 days, they'd select economically stimulative ventures that would meet real national needs.

The commission's green-light list would go in its entirety to Congress for a single yes-or-no vote, which the President could accept or reject. As with the base-closing commission, or in the case of fast-track authority for trade treaties, no item on the list could be saved or slashed. No earmarks.

The process could take even less time than the 120 days the bill allows. (Some 92%, or $325 billion, of the proposed stimulus funds are slated to be spent in fiscal-year 2010 or later.)

The American people are calling on government to put aside partisan bickering and pork-barrel politics to act for the good of the country. An Investment Commission could help engender confidence in the political process and help create a stronger recovery.

John de Figueiredo is an associate professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and its School of Law.

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