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Big spending is not a cure for our debt

The late Edward Bennett Williams, attorney and owner of The Washington Redskins, once said of his coach, George Allen: 'I gave him an unlimited expense account and he exceeded it.'

That is how many Americans feel about the federal government. Though it has unlimited possibilities for spending, it regularly exceeds them. Who lives like this? Who could? When your credit card debt is too high, you have to pay it off and reduce spending. Government lives in an alternate universe, declaring that while debt is bad, we have to incur more debt in order to get out of debt. Try that argument when MasterCard calls to say you're over your limit.

We speak of debt in the trillions of dollars as if we were talking about a slight discrepancy in the checkbook. Few can fathom the hole we are digging for ourselves.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, who represents a party with unclean hands when it comes to deficit spending, nevertheless has compiled a useful list of 'fun facts' about the spending bill crafted by House Democrats.

Boehner says the Democrats' massive spending bill will cost every American household $6,700 in additional debt and that the total cost of just this one piece of legislation is nearly as much as the annual discretionary budget for the entire federal government.

Barack Obama has said his proposed stimulus legislation, which is in addition to what has already been thrown at banks and other sinking entities, 'will create or save 3 million jobs.' Each job would cost $275,000. 'The average household income in the U.S. is $50,000 a year.' Wouldn't it be better just to send people a check? The House bill has enough spending in it to give every American man, woman and child $2,700. They could probably spend or invest it better than government.

Democrats claim most of the money is for 'infrastructure,' but only 3 percent is for repairing bridges and highways. A recent Congressional Budget Office study found that 'only 25 percent of infrastructure dollars can be spent in the first year, making the one-year total less than $7 billion for infrastructure.' Not exactly a pump-priming amount.

Much of the money is going to programs that have large unspent balances. One example is Community Development Block Grants; '... the bill provides $1 billion for CDBG, which already have $16 billion on hand. And, this year, Congress has plans to rescind $9 billion in highway funding that the states have not yet used.'

When President Bill Clinton proposed stimulus legislation in 1993, it was for 'only' $16 billion. Unemployment then was about the same as it is today (around 7 percent). Why does it take trillions to stimulate the economy today and only $16 billion to stimulate it in 1993?

There are plenty of add-ons in the House bill that have nothing to do with creating jobs, including $650 million for digital TV coupons. It might be cheaper to buy new TVs for the relative few who have old ones. There is $6 billion for colleges and universities, many of which have billion-dollar endowments. States will get $166 billion, though many have failed to budget wisely. There is $200 million to repair the National Mall and $400 million for 'National Treasures.'

Growing numbers of economists are expressing alarm about this trillion-dollar spending plan. Lee Ohanian, professor of economics at UCLA, says, '... it is not in any sense clear that the benefits justify the significant price tag of the package ... the historical record of government stimulus programs is poor. I can't think of a single fiscal stimulus program that demonstrably moderated a recession. But there is ample evidence based on peer-reviewed research that these programs have substantially damaged the U.S. economy, such as the New Deal programs in the 1930s.'

Brian Strow, associate professor of economics at Western Kentucky University, says, 'Government spending isn't a magic pill. It must be paid for. Spending today will most likely be paid by taxes tomorrow. ... Government debt is redistributive in nature. ... Since when have governments been better than markets in determining the best places to spend money?'

They aren't, of course, but the party of government and dependency on government wants to grow that dependency in order to solidify its power. The problem is even greater when one considers those countries to which we are indebted. We are mortgaging the future and perhaps the vitality of America, and too few people seem to care.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.