Lowery: The trillion dollar man

So far, the defining word of the Biden era is “trillion.”

The Joe Biden who portrayed himself as a moderate, old school, bipartisan dealmaker during the presidential campaign is now a distant memory. He’s been replaced by the Joe Biden who is dazzling progressives with his willingness to “go big” — in other words, spend jaw-dropping amounts that would have been unimaginable prior to the pandemic and are still shocking even now.

Why has Biden embarked on a historic spending splurge with nary a whisper of bipartisan support? Well, Democrats talked themselves into the proposition that there basically isn’t any such thing as spending too much.

Belatedly, the party consensus is that Barack Obama went “too small,” with a stimulus package under a trillion dollars, thus insufficient to the scale of house market crash recession. Besides, spending is something Biden can actually do. He can pass his stimulus and relief bills under the so-called reconciliation rules in the Senate, which requires only 50 votes rather than the 60 it takes to break a filibuster.

Finally, any Democratic president is drawn to the heroic allure of FDR, which demands measuring himself against the New Deal. In a recent meeting of historians at the White House, FDR was much discussed. One of the participants, Michael Beschloss, said FDR and LBJ may be the most apt analogues for how Biden is “transforming the country in important ways in a short time.”

There’s no doubt about one thing” Any past Democratic president would envy the sheer amount of dollars that Biden is shoveling out the door.

In fiscal year 2019, the federal government, which wasn’t exactly tightening its belt, spent $4.4 trillion. Biden is on pace to roughly match that with his first two major legislative initiatives — the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill and his new $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal.

The Biden team almost gives the sense that it is working backward — starting with a big, eye-popping price tag, then figuring out what initiatives can be thrown in to reach the top-line number.

The schools have tens of millions of dollars sitting unspent from prior relief bills, and here comes another $100 billion to upgrade school buildings in the infrastructure bill.

The states were lavished with $350 billion in the COVID-19 relief bill, even though many of them didn’t lose revenue during the pandemic. Why can’t those dollars be spent on infrastructure?

The new proposal is an infrastructure, drinking-water, broadband, home-retrofitting, manufacturing, long-term-care, electric-car, unionization bill — and a few other things besides.

The question is whether, when all the money is spent, anyone will point to any transformative change in the country attributable to the legislation. Or whether, like the Obama stimulus, it will be completely forgettable, money strewn over the landscape without leaving much of a trace.

In fact, the need for infrastructure spending over and beyond what the federal government, states and localities already spend is oversold.

A recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research noted: “Over the past generation, the condition of the interstate highway network improved consistently, its extent increased modestly, and traffic about doubled. Over about the same time period, the condition of bridges remained about the same, the number of bridges increased slowly, and bridge traffic increased modestly.”

Shooting money out of a bazooka is not self-evidently what the state of America’s infrastructure calls for. But when the only tool you have is huge reconciliation spending bills, everything looks like a crisis urgently requiring more profligacy.

The bills are also a substitute for passing significant policy changes.

Unlike FDR, Biden has narrow and tenuous congressional majorities. So he’s not getting voting rights, gun control, a $15 minimum wage or immigration reform — and perhaps couldn’t even if Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster.

What he can get is something FDR and LBJ never could — impose trillion-dollar price tags.

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review, a leading journal of conservative opinion. His work is distributed by King Features Syndicate.


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