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Published: Saturday, 2/14/2009

A package of pork

THERE was an awkward moment Tuesday for Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania's sort-of Republican, when Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked him about a provision of which he evidently was unaware in the stimulus package for which he'd just voted.

The provision would create a national coordinator for health information technology who would monitor treatments to make sure what your doctor is doing is what the federal government deems cost effective. It's modeled on the practice in Britain where elderly patients are denied expensive treatments because they are likely to die soon anyway.

If the provision had been law, Mr. Specter, 79, might have been denied coverage for the cancer treatments that have kept him alive.

Stuff like this is why there should have been hearings on the stimulus package, Mr. Specter told Ms. Kelly. But it was his vote, and those of Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, "moderate" Republicans from Maine, which rushed the bill through without hearings.

Congress will fix the "kill Granny" provision, Mr. Specter assured Ms. Kelly. But it's a lot harder to remove a bad idea once it's become law than to keep it from being enacted in the first place.

Whatever you think of the merits of "health-technology coordination," what's it doing in an economic stimulus bill?

Many think the greatest achievement of Bill Clinton's presidency was welfare reform. Both the House and Senate versions of the stimulus bill would undo welfare reform by restoring the funding system of the old Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

"The new welfare system created by the stimulus bills is actually worse than the old AFDC program because it rewards the states more heavily to increase their caseloads," according to Heritage Foundation analysts Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley.

What is a provision encouraging people to quit work and go on welfare doing in an economic stimulus bill? And, as with the "kill Granny" provision, shouldn't such a major policy change be subject to thorough debate before it is enacted into law?

President Barack Obama said it would be a "catastrophe" if the stimulus bill wasn't passed on his timetable. That view wasn't shared by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which said the economy should start to recover by the end of the year even without a stimulus bill and that the bill the President wanted would do nothing to help the economy this year. The Congressional Budget Office did say it would help somewhat next year, but would damage economic growth in the years after 2010.

The President has been disingenuous in describing the bill, and its critics.

"What it does not contain is not a single pet project, not a single earmark," Mr. Obama said in his news conference Monday. But how would you describe the $30 million in the bill to protect the wetlands habitat of, among other things, the salt marsh harvest mouse in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's district? Or the $2.25 billion for national parks sought by Craig Obey, chief lobbyist for the National Parks Conservation Association and the son of Rep. David Obey (D., Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee? Or the $8 billion for a light-rail line between Los Angeles and Los Vegas sought by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.)? Or the $300 million for electric vehicles, some of which could go for "neighborhood" vehicles resembling golf carts that would be built in North Dakota, home of Sen. Byron Dorgan, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee? Or the list is legion.

"Some of the projects bear the prime characteristics of pork - tailored to benefit specific interests or to have thinly disguised links to local projects," the Associated Press said.

Some critics of the porkalooza want to do nothing, Mr. Obama said at a rally in Fort Myers, Fla, on Tuesday. "In truth, few of those involved in the stimulus debate are suggesting that the government should not take action to aid the economy," noted the Washington Post.

Mr. Obama is still in campaign mode, because he is very good at it, and it is easier than governing. But at some point, people care more about performance than about the promises you make. That point may be closer than Mr. Obama realizes.



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