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ANALYSIS: Obama has it both ways on pork

Monday, February 9, 2009 | 9:06 p.m. CST; updated 9:55 p.m. CST, Monday, February 9, 2009

WASHINGTON — At least Route 31 is a road to somewhere.

President Barack Obama had it both ways Monday when he promoted his stimulus plan in Indiana and later at a prime-time news conference. He bragged in Indiana about getting Congress to produce a package with no pork, yet boasted it will do good things for a Hoosier highway and a downtown overpass, just the kind of local projects lawmakers lard into big spending bills.

Obama's sales pitch on the enormous package he wants Congress to make law has sizzle as well as steak. He's projecting job creation numbers that may be impossible to verify and glossing over some ethical problems that bedeviled his team.

In recent years, the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska came to symbolize the worst excesses of congressional earmarks, a device that allows a member of Congress to add money for local projects in legislation, practically under the radar.

Nothing so bold, or specific, as that now-discarded bridge project is contained in the stimulus package. That's not to say the package steers clear of waste or parochial interests. Obama played to such interests Monday, speaking at one point as if he'd come to fill potholes.

A look at some of Obama's claims in Elkhart, Ind., and the news conference called to make his case to the largest possible audience:

OBAMA: "Not a single pet project," he told the news conference. "Not a single earmark."

He said in Elkhart: "Understand, this bill does not have a single earmark in it, which is unprecedented for a bill of this size. ... There aren't individual pork projects that members of Congress are putting into this bill."

THE FACTS: There are no "earmarks," as they are usually defined, inserted by lawmakers in the bill. Still, some of the projects bear the prime characteristics of pork — tailored to benefit specific interests or to have thinly disguised links to local projects.

For example, the latest version contains $2 billion for a clean-coal power plant with specifications matching one in Mattoon, Ill., $10 million for urban canals, $2 billion for manufacturing advanced batteries for hybrid cars and $255 million for a polar icebreaker and other "priority procurements" by the Coast Guard.

Obama told his Elkhart audience that Indiana will benefit from work on "roads like U.S. 31 here in Indiana that Hoosiers count on." He added: "And I know that a new overpass downtown would make a big difference for businesses and families right here in Elkhart."

U.S. 31 is a north-south highway serving South Bend, 15 miles from Elkhart in the northern part of the state.

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OBAMA: "Most economists, almost unanimously, recognize that even if philosophically you're wary of government intervening in the economy, when you have the kind of problem you have right now ... government is an important element of introducing some additional demand into the economy."

FACT: True, economists believe government should act. But while many believe government spending is the answer, there is hardly unanimity on what to do, and Obama may have overstated conservative support.

In a recent newspaper ad, 300 economists signed up against the stimulus promoted by the president. "Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth," they wrote.

Martin Feldstein, a conservative economist at Harvard University and president emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, has advocated a stimulus package in the past, but he argued recently that the package before Congress "delivers too little extra employment and income for such a large fiscal deficit."

___

OBAMA: "They'll be jobs building the wind turbines and solar panels and fuel-efficient cars that will lower our dependence on foreign oil and modernizing our costly health care system that will save us billions of dollars and countless lives."

THE FACTS: The economic stimulus bill would allocate about $20 billion to help hospitals and doctors transition from paper charts to electronic health records for their patients. Research has shown that in some instances, electronic record keeping can eliminate inappropriate services and improve care, but it's not a sure thing by any means. "By itself, the adoption of more health IT is generally not sufficient to produce significant cost savings," the Congressional Budget Office reported last year.

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OBAMA: "We also inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression."

THE FACTS. This could turn out to be the case. But as bad as the economic numbers are, the unemployment figures have not reached the levels of the early 1980s, let alone the 1930s — yet. A total of 598,000 payroll jobs vanished in January — the most in nearly 35 years — and the unemployment rate jumped to 7.6 from 7.2 percent the month before. The most recent high was 7.8 percent in June 1992.

And the jobless rate was 10.8 percent in November and December 1982. Unemployment in the Great Depression ranged for several years from 25 percent to close to 30 percent.

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OBAMA: "I've appointed hundreds of people, all of whom are outstanding Americans who are doing a great job. There are a couple who had problems before they came into my administration, in terms of their taxes. ... I made a mistake ... I don't want to send the signal that there are two sets of rules."

He added: "Everybody will acknowledge that we have set up the highest standard ever for lobbyists not working in the administration."

THE FACTS: Two of his appointees, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle for secretary of Health and Human Services and Nancy Killefer as his chief compliance officer, dropped out after reports they had not paid a portion of their taxes.

Obama previously acknowledged he "screwed up" in making it seem to Americans that there is one set of tax compliance rules for VIPs and another set for everyone else. Yet his choice for treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, hung in and achieved the post despite having belatedly paid $34,000 to the IRS, an agency Geithner now oversees.

That could leave the perception that there is one set of rules for Geithner and another set for everyone else.

On lobbyists, Obama has in fact established tough new rules barring them from working for his administration. But the ban is not absolute.

William J. Lynn III, tapped to be the No. 2 official at the Defense Department, recently lobbied for military contractor Raytheon. William Corr, chosen as deputy secretary at Health and Human Services, has lobbied as an anti-tobacco advocate. And Geithner's choice for chief of staff, Mark Patterson, is an ex-lobbyist from Goldman Sachs.

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OBAMA: "The plan that we've put forward will save or create 3 million to 4 million jobs over the next two years."

THE FACTS: Job creation projections are uncertain even in stable times, and some of the economists relied on by Obama in making his forecast acknowledge a great deal of uncertainty in their numbers.

Beyond that, it's unlikely the nation will ever know how many jobs are saved as a result of the stimulus. While it's clear when jobs are abolished, there's no economic gauge that tracks job preservation.

 


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