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To reject domestic spending, GOP makes a space-based pitch (again)

Let's assume that if we stacked 4.7 trillion one-dollar bills, the pile would get us to the moon. There's an obvious follow-up question: So what?

Democrats still have plenty of work to do before they can vote on President Joe Biden's Build Back Better proposal, but the House has begun debating the domestic investments. The deliberations are not off to a great start.

For example, Republican Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas delivered these remarks on the House floor yesterday, alongside some notable poster boards:

"The total price tag of this infrastructure bill, plus reconciliation, [is] $4.7 trillion. American people, listen: $4.7 t — trillion dollars. It's difficult to visualize a number so mind-bogglingly wasteful. If we started stacking 4.7 trillion dollar bills, one on top of each other, that stack would be 318,971 miles tall. That's enough to go to the moon and a third of the way back. This is beyond wasteful. It's disgusting, irresponsible, and unnecessary."

The Texas Republican went on to argue that the bill would saddle future generations "with debt that literally goes to the moon."

Nehls delivered the prepared remarks while standing next to a poster featuring an image of Earth, Earth's moon, a giant pile of money, and a series of arrows pointing between them. The text at the top of poster read, in a NASA-like font, "Biden Lunar Program."

There are, of course, a few problems with this. For one thing, the price tag for the two-track plan almost certainly won't add up to $4.7 trillion. For another, when Congress makes decade-long investments, massive numbers are often inevitable. Last week, lawmakers agreed to spend many trillions of dollars on national defense over the next 10 years, and I didn't see any GOP members saying, "It's difficult to visualize a number so mind-bogglingly wasteful."

Indeed, the idea that dramatic domestic investments are by definition "wasteful" is inherently flawed.

While we're at it, let's not overlook the fact that most of the Build Back Better plan will be paid for, which makes Nehls' claim that the bill will create debt "that literally goes to the moon" wrong on multiple levels.

But the congressman's pitch wasn't just flawed, it was also familiar.

In early 2009, as the Great Recession took a brutal toll on the economy, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota delivered remarks on the Senate floor, denouncing Democratic rescue plans. To drive home his point, the GOP senator focused specifically on the physical size of a $1 trillion stimulus package.

Alongside a poster showing a giant pile of money, Thune explained in detail that if we were to stack $100 bills on top of one another, $1 trillion would be 689 miles high. And if we tied those bills end to end, the South Dakotan added, $1 trillion would wrap the circumference of the planet nearly 39 times.

The problem with Thune's case in 2009 is the same as the problem with Nehls' case yesterday: They've brought meaningless observations to a policy fight.

Let's say for the sake of conversation that the math is right. Let's just assume that if we stacked 4.7 trillion one-dollar bills on top of each other, the pile would be large enough to get us to the moon and a third of the way back.

There's an obvious follow-up question: So what?

If the investments — in health care, in education, in climate, in housing, in families, etc. — are unwise, Republicans should certainly make that argument. If the GOP minority has an alternative proposal in mind to address these domestic needs, it should certainly have the opportunity to present it and point to its merits.

But too often, Republicans argue against significant domestic investments by marveling at price tags, without any regard for the substance. Indeed, these space-based arguments point to symbolic trivialities as if they were substantive.

They're not.