Well deserved kudos for the Recovery Act

WELL DESERVED KUDOS FOR THE RECOVERY ACT…. There’s a certain awkwardness that comes with defending last year’s stimulus, and not just because polls tend to find it unpopular. On the one hand, we see entirely legitimate criticisms from the left about the need for the Recovery Act to have been much bigger. On the right, we see complaints that the stimulus was a bad idea because … well, whatever it is conservatives are unhappy about now.

But the White House’s defense of the economic initiative happens to be true — whether the truth is popular or not.

The massive economic stimulus package President Obama pushed through Congress last year is coming in on time and under budget — and with strikingly few claims of fraud or abuse — according to a White House report to be released Friday.

Coming barely a month before November’s midterm elections, which will determine whether Democrats retain control of Congress, the report challenges public perceptions of the stimulus aid as slow-moving and wasteful — an image that has fueled voter anger with the dominant party. Even some former skeptics who predicted that the money would lead to rampant abuse now acknowledge that the program could serve as a model for improving efficiency in government.

It’s frustrating to realize just how backwards so many of the complaints have been from the right. Conservatives think stimulus investments were ripe with abuse, but “stimulus contracts and grants have so far been relatively free of the fraud charges that plague more routine government spending programs.” They think the effort was too slow, but the administration “met nearly a dozen deadlines set by Congress for getting money out the door.”

Conservatives are convinced it failed to serve its intended purpose, but the Recovery Act appears to be “on track to meet the administration’s goal of preserving 3.5 million jobs by the end of the year.”

The right likes to make the case that this was also bad for the country over the long-run, but that’s backwards, too: “[W]ithin the confines of that stimulus, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress managed to make a host of long-term investments that would’ve been considered huge accomplishments in any other context, but are largely unknown inside this one. Huge investments in green energy, in health information technology, in high-speed rail, in universal broadband, in medical research, in infrastructure. The Making Work Pay tax cut. The Race to the Top education reform program.”

Of particular interest in this new report is just how effective oversight has been in preventing wasteful spending:

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents government contractors, said the unprecedented focus on oversight clearly paid off and should be analyzed for lessons that could be applied throughout the government.

“Given the ambitious nature of the stimulus, the fact that things have gone relatively smoothly suggests that they did put appropriate and adequate resources” into program oversight, said Soloway, an early skeptic of the package. “They definitely deserve credit for that,” he said.

Of course, with weak economic growth and an unemployment crisis, applauding the Recovery Act seems unsatisfying. Had it been bigger, its benefits (and popularity) would have been far greater. Its limited scope was a costly mistake, as were some of the overly-optimistic predictions from early last year.

That said, the stimulus still happens to be one of the more successful governmental accomplishments of this generation, popular opinion notwithstanding.