Stimulus was not ‘Mostly an Infrastructure Spending Bill’

A story in today’s Politico seeking to explain why John McCain has been so critical of Barack Obama since the election contains this perplexing passage:

Discussing Obama’s first big initiative, the stimulus, Salter said that his old boss could not get behind what was mostly an infrastructure spending bill.

“If [Obama] had said we’re going to do this half my way and half your way, guys like John McCain and others would have been all over it,” he said.

It’s not a direct quote, so it’s not clear whether the characterization of the stimulus measure as “mostly an infrastructure spending bill” is Salter’s or Politico’s. Either way, it’s not really accurate. “Infrastructure” is a bit of a fuzzy term, so measures of infrastructure funding in the $787 billion package vary, but in all cases they’re well below “most” of the bill. USA Today’s stimulus breakdown, which cites the AP, lists about $85 billion in infrastructure funding. ProPublica, meanwhile, tallies about $98 billion in “transportation and infrastructure” funds, plus another $19 billion in “infrastructure financing tools.” Another account, meanwhile, put it at $144 billion. That’s not nothing, but the idea that the stimulus package was first and foremost an “infrastructure bill” rests largely on media coverage that, throughout the summer, measured the law’s success by the number of hardhats it put to work.

So if the stimulus package wasn’t all about infrastructure, what was in it? As the ProPublica breakdown notes, the single biggest category was tax relief for individuals, which, if you include AMT relief, amounted to nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars. Add in stepped-up assistance to cash-strapped states and towns, and you can account for about half the measure. That’s not to say it’s surprising that McCain didn’t support it—much of the spending in the bill did go to government programs that Republicans, historically, haven’t been big supporters of. But it wasn’t, for the most part, about infrastructure.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.