The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus — has been marketed as a jobs bill, and that’s how it’s been judged. The White House says it has saved or created about 3 million jobs, helping avoid a depression and end a recession. Republicans mock it as a Big Government boondoggle that has failed to prevent rampant unemployment despite a massive expansion of the deficit. Liberals complain that it wasn’t massive enough.
For starters, the Recovery Act is the most ambitious energy legislation in history, converting the Energy Department into the world’s largest venture-capital fund.
It’s pouring $90 billion into clean energy, including unprecedented investments in a smart grid; energy efficiency; electric cars; renewable power from the sun, wind and earth; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; and factories to manufacture green stuff in the U.S. The act will also triple the number of smart electric meters in our homes, quadruple the number of hybrids in the federal auto fleet and finance far-out energy research through a new government incubator modeled after the Pentagon agency that fathered the Internet. (See TIME’s special report “After One Year, A Stimulus Report Card.”)
The only stimulus energy program that’s gotten much attention so far — chiefly because it got off to a slow start — is a $5 billion effort to weatherize homes. But the Recovery Act’s line items represent the first steps to a low-carbon economy. “It will leverage a very different energy future,” says Kristin Mayes, the Republican chair of Arizona’s utility commission. “It really moves us toward a tipping point.” (Watch the video “TIME Polls America: Spend or Cut?”)
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The stimulus is also stocked with nonenergy game changers, like a tenfold increase in funding to expand access to broadband and an effort to sequence more than 2,300 complete human genomes — when only 34 were sequenced with all previous aid. There’s $8 billion for a high-speed passenger rail network, the boldest federal transportation initiative since the interstate highways. There’s $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to promote accountability in public schools, perhaps the most significant federal education initiative ever — it’s already prompted 35 states and the District of Columbia to adopt reforms to qualify for the cash. There’s $20 billion to move health records into the digital age, which should reduce redundant tests, dangerous drug interactions and errors caused by doctors with chicken-scratch handwriting. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius calls that initiative the foundation for Obama’s health care reform and “maybe the single biggest component in improving quality and lowering costs.”