When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell heard of the president's plan, he derisively laughed out loud, as if he'd been handed a piece of road kill. At about the same time, Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who is incoming chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, baldly declared: There will be no stimulus in any fiscal-cliff budget deal.
Why is all of that hypocritical? Most Republicans consider the whole idea of spending federal money to repair the nation's crumbling roads, bridges and the rest -- while creating thousands of jobs in the process -- nothing short of sacrilege. And yet they're perfectly happy to spend billions of dollars to build roads, bridges and schools in foreign countries, particularly Afghanistan, where authorizing money on infrastructure improvements is like throwing cash into the fire.
In his most recent quarterly report, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction said that, when security for aid workers is included, Congress has appropriated "approximately $100 billion" in development aid since 2002, nearly all of it deficit spending -- more than the U.S. has ever spent to rebuild any other country.
Republicans approved every one of those appropriations without any notable arguments. And the most hypocritical part is that they're approving many millions of dollars in additional infrastructure aid right now -- even while they throw up passionate ideological objections to dedicating any money, even a penny, to similar projects for their constituents at home.
They keep sending the money, even though they know perfectly well that Afghanistan is one of the world's most corrupt nations. Just this month, the special investigator general (widely known as SIGAR) released a special report on the suitcases full of cash that Afghan government officials carry away on planes from Kabul's airport every day. That's a longstanding problem, and much of the money, certainly, is purloined American aid.
Last year, SIGAR installed "bulk currency counters at the airport to monitor the outflow of funds," the report said. Revisiting last month, the agency found that the machines "did not appear to be in use," and government officials carrying stuffed suitcases were walking right past them.
This fiscal year, the United States Agency for International Development, using Republican-approved funds, is spending $20 million on new school buildings, even though the Congressional Research Service reported this fall that "setbacks have occurred because of Taliban attacks on schools." More than 100 were blown up just last year, the United Nations reported. And for those still standing, few have electricity or running water. Teachers are barely educated and often unpaid, and the textbooks are decades out of date.
Think what $20 million could have accomplished if dedicated to American schools.
There could be no better example of this ludicrous infrastructure spending than USAID's absurdly named project: IDEA-NEW. The $150 million endeavor, still ongoing, is intended to create new economic opportunities for opium-poppy farmers -- to dissuade them from this illicit trade. Afghanistan has long been the world's largest supplier of opium.
Well, as soon as the first tranche of money arrived in Afghanistan, the program administrators decided they just didn't like this new idea. So they began spending millions on infrastructure improvements -- without any regard to the drug trade. Even at that, they did a poor job. For example, the agency hired workers to build or repair 377 kilometers of irrigation. They managed only 40 kilometers.
During the course of this program so far, the U.N. said, Afghanistan's opium crop actually surged by 61 percent. That's another $150 million wasted.
The congressional research report said Congress is continuing to approve money to build roads, bridges, schools and railways, improve health care and increase electricity availability in Afghanistan -- all faltering efforts.
At home, meantime, Republicans want to cut Medicare and Medicaid spending. They refuse to approve money to repair roads, bridges, schools and railways -- or to bury electric cables so they are no longer vulnerable to storms like Sandy.
In fact, all they want to do is slash government spending, heedless of the example from Europe. There, nearly a dozen states remain mired in deep recession brought on by "austerity" budget cuts that bring with them massive layoffs of government workers and contractors -- elevating unemployment rates.Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.