The Math Behind A “Billion Dollars An Hour”

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This is the new Senate Republican talking point: If you take the cost of the stimulus bill and add in the cost of the Fiscal Year 2009 omnibus bill, and then divide that number by the number of hours in the first 50 days of the Obama presidency, the result is $1 billion-per-hour of spending by Congress. Sounds big and scary. But it’s also a great example of fuzzy math that does not really mean what it seems to mean.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is doing the arithmetic this way, per Politico’s Mike Allen. “50 days times 24 hours equals 1,200 hours. 1,200 times 1 billion equals 1.2 trillion (a thousand billions is a trillion).”

It’s true that if you add the stimulus and the omnibus you get about $1.2 trillion. But that money will not be spent in 50 days. The omnibus is a spending bill¬† to run the government over the course of an entire year. (It should have passed last fall, but was delayed for the presidential election and because of partisan infighting.) The stimulus will be paid out over several years, with most of the money going out the door over the next 18 months. So no one is spending a billion dollars an hour. Consider this comparison: If over the course of a one hour board meeting, the head of Mattel decided to produce 1 million new Barbie dolls over the coming year, no one would say that Mattel is making 1 million Barbie dolls an hour. They would say Mattel is making 1 million Barbie dolls a year.

Furthermore, most of this money would have probably been spent even if Republicans controlled congress and John McCain had won the White House. The omnibus had some increases in spending over recent levels, including some departments that got 10 percent increases. But no Republican has proposed not funding the government. (McCain spoke of spending freezes on the trail, not dramatic reductions.)¬† And Republicans would still have needed to find a way to pass the omnibus in the first weeks of the new year. Something similar can be said for the stimulus. Though few Republicans supported the stimulus bill Obama signed, most did not oppose the idea of an expensive stimulus to deal with the economic collapse. Republicans broadly supported a $152 billion stimulus last year, for example, and this year they proposed a tax-cut heavy alternative that would have cost hundreds of billions of dollars. (Notably, the Republicans left out a price for their plan when it was proposed.) Though the Republican stimulus might have been smaller, and would contain more tax cuts and less spending, it still would have been expensive. In this alternate universe, however, McConnnell and his comrades would not be complaining about the pace of McCain’s per-hour spending rate, trying to scare the country with big numbers that don’t mean all that much.

MORE: Speaking of McConnell, the good people at McClatchy report that he requested $75 million in earmarks in the omnibus bill that so upsets him for being too big.