One person's pork is another's steak

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi participates in a news conference about the economic stimulus package on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: The House passed its version of the stimulus package this afternoon, by the way. Nevertheless, this morning President Obama continued his full-court economic press. He spoke after he invited a group of CEOs to the White House.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I know that there are some who are skeptical of the size and scale of this recovery plan, and I understand that skepticism, given some of the things that have happened in this town in the past.

He didn't actually say it, but listening between the lines there, it's pretty clear what he's talking about -- pork. But Marketplace's Janet Babin reports now from North Carolina Public Radio, one person's pork is another person's stimulus.


JANET BABIN: The bill includes funding for increased unemployment benefits, infrastructure, education and health care. But it also harbors some pet projects. Things that Democrats might see as stimulus, but Republicans see as pork spending.

MAYA MACGUINEAS: It is Washington, D.C. Politics is always going to be part of the picture.

That's Maya MacGuineas with the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. She says anything in the package that sounds like a punchline needs to go, like:

MACGUINEAS: Money to fund planting more grass on the National Mmall, or a Mob museum, or a water park.

Yesterday, Democratic leaders cut out money for family planning spending. The GOP didn't think that would stimulate much. Democrats saw it as a way to cut prenatal expenses. But that's no economic stimulus either.

President Obama had promised the bill would have no earmarks. But Brookings Institution scholar Bill Frenzel says even the best intentions can get squashed by urgency.

BILL FRENZEL: Presidents always get nervous. They're in a hurry. He feels a great pressure to act swiftly to try to combat the strong forces of recession.

The distinction between pork-barrel spending and substance is murky, anyway. Harvard economics Professor Ken Rogoff offers these guidelines:

KEN ROGOFF: Pork would be a case where the benefits are concentrated to a small group that's politically connected and powerful.

And Rogoff says stimulus spending should always promote growth. But that definition is in the eyes of the beholder.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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