The idea that posting the entirety of the $789 billion dollar 2009 American Recover and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus package, on the internet for everyone to peruse and decide for themselves is somehow a new idea is a bill of goods.
House and Senate bills have been available for years to the proprietors of the shop, the American voters just for the asking. It's also just this side of a bad marketing ploy to say that short of marching in the streets our general silence must mean we are all in favor of the package and see spending another $700 billion dollars as a good economic move.
We don't actually know the response to that question, and it's more insulting that no one is really that keen on helping us find the answers. Go look it up yourself, isn't enough of an answer when we're talking about hundreds of pages about billions of dollars for complicated issues.
The government didn't suddenly become transparent and the average American family didn't suddenly find extra hours in the day to read through a complicated legislative bill. Not only read the bill but then seek out experts to decipher whether or not any of the particulars translate into new jobs in 2009 or lower health care costs or more efficient energy or, at least, no potholes on our commute.
We elect representatives to read the bills and vote based on what they think we desire. However, it's been pointed out that even they didn't have the time, so transparency in government is a nice theory, but the way the game is rigged, no one has the time to actually put it into practice. Every time the new administration repeatedly trumpets the ability to read without giving the time or experts needed is annoying, and old Washington at work. New package, but very old behavior.
Making stump speeches touting the necessity for the bill doesn't quite cut it either. It's paternalistic in the sense of: because I said so. Rather than sending the newly elected president to a handful of cities, send thousands of talented experts all across the country to explain the different elements in a series of meetings. That would, at the very least, give us the chance to ask substantive questions during town hall meetings of people who weren't running for office, ever.
We could even get to bed earlier, rather than wait for the "Daily Show" to break it all down for us in clever, little packaged skits. That, or watch "Fox News" to see why there is a looming Armageddon that wasn't there just before the election. In other words, there could be some give and take where everyone at the top took us a little more seriously, and without the dramedy. We could ask questions.
Just to give you a taste of what you could ask about, if only there was someone at the front of the room to ask, here's a very small excerpt about the legislation. There is a line item under the energy section for $32 billion to invest in an electric smart grid.
A smart grid is a means to deliver energy to consumers more efficiently with less waste in a means that would be more difficult to bring down by terrorists and less prone to cascading failure. Italy and Canada are hard at work on completing a large-scale project, but so far, the U.S. has only a couple of regional attempts. It's estimated that power outages cost U.S. businesses $100 billion per year that could be saved by the use of a smart grid. Give us a decade of a federally mandated grid, and even with unforeseen glitches, we get somewhere in the neighborhood of paying for the bailout. Another decade and maybe we come back to a balanced budget.
Along the way, if our use of energy becomes more efficient by just five percent it will be the equivalent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 53 million cars. Start writing down those questions.
For anyone who's listening along Pennsylvania Avenue, hire some people who aren't going to give us government-speak and send them out on the road. Right at the moment, what's going on bears more of a resemblance to trying to ask questions about what happened to the 401(k), or finding out how to apply for modification on a mortgage.
Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.