Stimulus Package: A Trillion Here, a Trillion There

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announces the economic stimulus plan.

And so we have agreement in the Senate on a stimulus package to rescue the U.S. economy from the economic ravages of the COVID-19 virus. And now it’s on to the House for passage, perhaps later this week. The sheer size is stunningly immense at some $2 trillion, give or take a few billion.

How much is $2 trillion? Given that National Pi Day passed March 14 without much interest, and even less understanding, some explanation likely is in order:

  • Well, $2 trillion is a “2” followed by 12 zeroes.
  • Alternatively, $2 trillion is equivalent to $1 billion multiplied by 2,000.
  • Were you to stack $100 bills, one atop the other, the height of the stack would reach 1,260 miles high—or some five times the distance from Earth to the International Space Station (254 miles).
  • You would have to spend $1 million daily for close to 6,000 years to reach $2 trillion. 
  • Were you to count $1 every second, without pause, it would take 64,000 years before you counted out $2 trillion.
  • By reference, the U.S. already is running an annual $1 trillion deficit before this $2 trillion stimulus bill was passed, meaning the existing $23 trillion-plus total U.S. debt will grow this year by another $3 trillion.
  • The existing $23 trillion federal debt exceeded American gross domestic product (GDP, the total value of all goods and services we as a nation produce annually) of some $21 trillion. It is equivalent to having credit card debt of twice as much as earned in a year; and this percentage will further exceed 100%, given the sharply reduced economic activity expected well past the end of this health crisis.
  • Those holding the $23 trillion-plus U.S. debt—individuals, pension funds, banks, foreign governments and trust funds such as Social Security and Railroad Retirement—expect interest on the money lent our federal government. Even with recent ultra-low interest rates, that debt is some $400 billion annually, and is projected to grow as high as $800 billion in coming years, or some $100 billion more than the total of the annual defense budget.
  • Notably, the late Herbert Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, predicted in what is now known as “Stein’s Law”: “I recently came to a remarkable conclusion, which I commend to you and that is that if something cannot go on forever it will stop. So, what we have learned about all these things is that the Federal debt cannot rise forever relative to the GDP. Our foreign debt cannot rise forever relative to the GDP. But, of course, if they can’t, they will stop.”

What’s in this $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress? Summaries are available, although, for example, the Democratic House draft was 1,404 pages long. So, who read it?

Consider the following illustrative exchange that took place on the Senate floor in the course of debate on a tax bill, as recounted from several years earlier by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 1985, in a concurring opinion written by him when a circuit court judge—Hirschey vs. F.E.R.C., 777 F.2d 1 (D.C. Cir. 1985):

Sen. William Armstrong (R-Colo.): Mr. President, will the Senator tell me whether or not he wrote the committee report?

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Robert Dole (R-Kans.): Did I write the committee report?

Sen. Armstrong: Yes.

Sen. Dole: No, the Senator from Kansas did not write the committee report.

Sen. Armstrong: Did any Senator write the committee report?

Sen. Dole: I have to check.

Sen. Armstrong: Does the Senator know of any Senator who wrote the committee report?

Sen. Dole: I might be able to identify one, but I would have to search. I was here all during the time it was written, I might say, and worked carefully with the staff as they worked.

Sen. Armstrong: Mr. President, has the Senator from Kansas, the chairman of the Finance Committee, read the committee report in its entirety?

Sen. Dole: I am working on it. It is not a bestseller, but I am working on it.

Or, as now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unfortunately said following passage of the 906-page 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, “Well, if you want to know what’s in the bill, you’ll have to read it.” And so it is with the stimulus package.

Ah, a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking big money. Note: The quote, often incorrectly attributed to the late Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Ill.), was of “billion” and not “trillion”—another sign of our profligate spending times, perhaps, given that “billion” is one-thousandth of a trillion.

Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, among them Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight, all published by Simmons-Boardman Books. Wilner earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals. Wilner drafted the railroad section of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership (Volumes I and II), which were policy blueprints for the two Reagan Administrations; and was a guest columnist for the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.

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