Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Congress Weighs Another Stimulus

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Congress Weighs Another Stimulus

Article excerpt

With the economic outlook getting darker by the day, it looks increasingly likely that Congress will provide the economy with a flashlight.

A new stimulus package can't chase away the economy's gloom on its own. But after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke endorsed the idea Monday, Congress has begun to seriously consider the outlines of a new economic boost.

"Momentum is building," says Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, chairman of the House Budget Committee. "The White House says it's negotiable and we know we need to do something."

What Congress ends up doing, says Mr. Spratt, is not likely to be a replay of this spring, when the US Treasury sent consumers about $100 billion in tax-rebate checks. Some economists question the effectiveness of that stimulus - a significant chunk went to pay down debt or into savings. It appears any new spending will be more targeted to people or areas of the economy that are suffering.

Spratt expects any new spending program to have three components:

* The extension of unemployment benefits and possibly food stamps from 39 to 52 weeks.

* A boost in infrastructure spending, despite the problems of getting the money to work quickly.

* Some relief for state and local governments facing tighter budgets because of lower tax receipts and rising Medicaid costs.

Spratt expects some members of Congress will want to include another round of tax-rebate checks to Americans. "If there is debate that is any good at all, I would not expect it to be a component," he says.

One of the reasons for Congress's hesitation on a new rebate program is that many Americans either used the rebate of $600 per individual and $1,200 per couple to reduce debt or bolster their savings. In surveys done this summer, economists Joel Slemrod and Matthew Shapiro of the University of Michigan found that only 20 percent of the people who received the rebates spent them. That is about the same as the tax rebates of 2001.

One exception to this could be people living paycheck to paycheck, says Mr. Slemrod. "But one might want to look at broader ways to stimulate the economy, such as payments to state and local governments to not postpone infrastructure projects."

Highway, bridge projects have strong backing

Boosting infrastructure spending has some bipartisan support. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California pushed for such a program in September in a stimulus bill that passed the House but was blocked in the Senate. And some Republicans are voicing support. "Congressman Shays strongly believes we need to rebuild our energy, water, and transportation infrastructure," says David Natonski, a spokesman for Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut. A key House committee will hold hearings on infrastructure spending next Wednesday.

But the Republican leadership has different ideas for the stimulus. …

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