Coffman cites nonexistent CBO study as reason to vote against stimulus

Rep. Mike Coffman, right, gets chummy with his CD 6 predecessor, Rep. Tom Tancredo. (Photo/Coffman for Congress.com)

Rep. Mike Coffman, right, gets chummy with his CD 6 predecessor, Rep. Tom Tancredo. (Photo/Coffman for Congress.com)

Just after Rep. Mike Coffman voted, along with every other House Republican, against the $816 billion stimulus package — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, by its proper name — the Aurora lawmaker blasted a statement to the press to explain his reasoning.

“The American people deserve better than this pork-laden spending frenzy masquerading as a ‘stimulus package’,” Coffman said. He drew on no less an authority than a report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to make the point that the spending would reach the economy too slowly to be effective. The problem is, the CBO report doesn’t exist, and an actual CBO report comes to very different conclusions.

Before we examine Coffman’s CBO citation, let’s acknowledge that his argument — it’s too much spending, and besides, it’s too slow — bears an uncanny resemblance to an old Woody Allen gag from Annie Hall:

“Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

Ahem.

In any case, here’s what Coffman said about his vote against the stimulus package:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, only $26 billion, or 7%, of the House bill’s $355 billion in new spending would actually be spent in the current fiscal year. Around one-third of the new appropriations would be spent by the end of 2010.

In fact, according to the CBO, the stimulus bill has a net injection into the economy of $169 billion in spending and tax cuts in the current fiscal year, $92 billion of that in spending. Coffman’s “one-third” figure refers only to a portion of the bill, and ignores a roughly equal part of the stimulus achieved by “direct spending” and leaving tax cuts out of the equation entirely. How’d that happen?

Last week, Republicans were throwing around a purported CBO report that showed, they claimed, the paltry short-term effect of the stimulus because most of the money appropriated wouldn’t be spent until after 2010. The “report” was widely cited in the media as Republicans attempted to frame the debate on the stimulus package, but it fell on the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim to verify whether the CBO report existed. Turns out it didn’t.

Reports of a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, showing that the vast majority of the money in the stimulus package won’t be spent until after 2010, have Democrats on the defensive and the GOP calling for a pullback in wasteful spending.

Funny thing is, there is no such report.

“We did not issue any report, any analysis or any study,” a CBO aide told the Huffington Post.

Rather, the nonpartisan CBO ran a small portion of an earlier version of the stimulus plan through a computer program that uses a standard formula to determine a score — how quickly money will be spent. The score only dealt with the part of the stimulus headed for the Appropriations Committee and left out the parts bound for the Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce Committee.

Because it dealt with just a part of the stimulus, it estimated the spending rate for only about $300 billion of the $825 billion plan. Significant changes have been made to the part of the bill the CBO looked at.

The Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog discusses how the partial, incomplete analysis made it into the wild and turned into an authoritative citation:

It appears that the preliminary, incomplete numbers put together by the CBO were distributed to a small handful of lawmakers in both parties earlier in the week. Someone (Republican congressional offices) then passed the misleading data onto the AP, which predictably ran with the incomplete numbers, telling the public that it “will take years before an infrastructure spending program proposed by President-elect Barack Obama will boost the economy.”

Other major media outlets quickly followed, and voila, Republicans had a talking point: “Boehner and other Republican aides roamed the Capitol press galleries, flogging the CBO numbers.”

The White House released a statement responding to reports on the bogus CBO report. From Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag:

The Congressional Budget Office recently released an analysis of a component of the economic recovery proposal; that analysis, however, did not assess the overall package. Our analysis indicates that at least 75 percent of overall package (including its tax component and the other spending provisions that were not analyzed by the Congressional Budget Office) will be spent over the next year and a half (the rest of fiscal year 2009 and fiscal year 2010).

According to the actual CBO report, which showed up Monday, $92 billion — nearly four times the amount cited by Coffman — would be spent by Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year. Coffman also leaves out the effect of this fiscal year’s tax cuts, which will pump additional tens of billions of dollars into the economy quickly.

Therefore, according to the CBO, $92 billion in outlays — or 11.2 percent of the $816 billion stimulus plan — would take effect in the remaining “7 1/2 month period” of fiscal year 2009. Likewise, tax cuts and outlays in the first seven-and-a-half months would account for $169 billion — or 20.7 percent — of the $816 billion plan, according to CBO.

As for Coffman’s contention — based on the phantom report, that would be “according to the Congressional Budget Office” — that “[a]round one-third of the new appropriations would be spent by the end of 2010”? Let’s check with the CBO itself:

Combining the spending and revenue effects of H.R. 1, CBO estimates that enacting the bill would increase federal budget deficits by $169 billion over the remaining months of fiscal year 2009, by $356 billion in 2010, by $174 billion in 2011, and by $816 billion over the 2009-2019 period.

That’s $525 billion through fiscal 2010 — 64 percent of the $819 billion stimulus package — with another three months remaining to reach “the end of 2010,” Coffman’s yardstick. That’s more than twice the rate of spending Coffman deemed too slow to be effective. Something about the congressman’s statement, though — maybe it’s the part where he describes the stimulus as a “pork-laden spending frenzy” — suggests working from the actual numbers, rather than the made-up ones he cited, wouldn’t have changed his vote.

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Ernest Luning

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